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After the killing of Soleimani, we need clarity on UK involvement in drone strikes

4 min read

The lethal US drone strike on the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani should be a wake-up call to all those concerned with global stability, security and adherence to international law, write Lord Hodgson and Baroness Stern

Last week, in the wake of the most controversial drone strike to date, we tabled an urgent debate in the House of Lords, to re-examine existing agreements on UK drones and its assistance to partners.

The first duty of a state is to protect its citizens, and we accept that forming policies to deal with complex and dangerous issues will always be a challenge. However, the fact that it is challenging cannot mean that we do not strive to achieve the appropriate level of democratic accountability and control.

In recent years, drone operations have experienced a high degree of ‘mission creep’, culminating in the assassination of General Soleimani. In 2018, as the Officers of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones, we conducted an Inquiry into The UK’s Use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners  - primarily in response to growing concern about the US’ controversial track record in the war on terror, and the risks of UK involvement.

The assassination of General Soleimani is only the latest in a series of controversial US strikes, outlined in our report. It is the first time a drone was used to kill another country’s senior commander on foreign soil, without the state’s consent. This represents a dangerous escalation of US counter-terrorism policy and sets a dangerous precedent that undermines international law.

Dr Agnes Callemard, the United Nations' special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, said the attack "most likely" violated international law, in part because the US hadn't faced an "imminent threat" and the strike killed at least five other people.

Over the last two decades, the UK’s use of drones has been widely regarded as a model for responsible and ethical use. This set it apart from the US, which relied on a considerably more expansive interpretation of self-defence. However, in recent years, there have been a series of subtle shifts taking us closer to the US position. Without clarity concerning UK policy, we run the risk of assisting the US in unlawful operations, opening up our personnel and ministers to prosecution.

For years, the UK has facilitated the US’ targeted-killing programme based solely on assurances: The UK provides intelligence and bulk data, military bases in the UK and embedded troops under US command.

These existing agreements and arrangements are not authorised by, or even reported to Parliament. As it stands, there are several crucial gaps in Parliament’s ability to scrutinise military partnerships. Whilst we are told safeguards such as the ‘red card’ system exist, there remains little information on how they are used in practice. We need the right tools to ensure our safeguards are up to the task.

Drones may appear to be risk-free to us, but it is far from risk-free to those on the ground. It is easy to assume that drone warfare affects combatants only —sadly not. Civilians are nearly always on the front line. This is reflected in rising allegations of civilian deaths. The frequent sound of drones, from which death and destruction can be rained down at any moment, also causes significant psychological strain, as explained by one of our excellent researchers, who recently spent time in Yemen. In this climate, how do you go about your daily life? Do you allow your children to play outside?

We are only just coming to terms with the UK’s role in facilitating torture by the US government fifteen years ago - let’s not find ourselves in the same place with drone operations. In a global climate where the international rules-based order is under threat, it is crucial that the UK remains an independent and leading supporter of international law. This should start with the UK ensuring its partnership arrangements follow the letter of the law, through clearly stating the limitations and conditions of UK support. 

Baroness Stern is a crossbench peer and Co-Chair of the APPG on Drones. Lord Hodgson is a Conservative peer and Vice-Chair of the APPG on Drones. 

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