20 November 2012
MPs to test British use of drones at heart of secret war
By Deborah Haynes, Defence Editor
The Times


Drone technology is fast becoming one of the most important weapons in Britain’s arsenal - Ethan Miller/Getty Images

MPs are to open an inquiry into Britain’s use of drones to kill militants in a move that could prompt the United States to reveal more about its “secret war”.

Members of the Commons Defence Select Committee are to investigate the deployment of armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Afghanistan as part of a two-year inquiry into the military’s use of lethal force, The Times has learnt.

MPs and peers may also hold a joint debate on Britain’s drone policy and the ethics of killing targets remotely. In addition, ministers face calls to reveal whether they share British intelligence with the US to help CIA-operated drones to kill terror suspects in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The programme, dubbed “America’s secret war”, is credited with weakening al-Qaeda but causing hundreds of civilian casualties and fuelling a hatred of the West.

James Arbuthnot, the Conservative chairman of the Defence Committee, said that the issue of drones was gaining in importance as a larger proportion of the Royal Air Force became unmanned. “An unmanned aerial vehicle is the same as any other platform that fires weapons,” he said. “The issues that are concerning people are the distance between the person who is controlling that platform and the death that results from it.”

Drone technology is fast becoming one of the most important weapons in Britain’s arsenal. The RAF is doubling its fleet of armed Reaper drones in Afghanistan to ten and shifting their base from the US to Britain.

Lord Hutton, a former Labour defence secretary, said that the weapon was the “face of modern warfare” and welcomed greater debate on its use. “This is the future of war fighting and deterrence. We need this technology and we need to make sure that the public understands that.”

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, a former Tory defence and foreign secretary, agreed. “This is part of modern military capability, which will undoubtedly become much more substantial.”

Britain, the US and Israel are the only countries to have used armed drones — Israeli missiles fired from unmanned aircraft were part of the assault on Gaza last Wednesday — but scores of other states are following suit, including Russia, China and Iran. In total, 76 nations are known to have drone programmes but most of them are unarmed aircraft for surveillance.

Despite their increasing reliance on the aircraft, British and American secrecy has hampered scrutiny of drones' effectiveness. Human rights campaigners say that civilian deaths in many drone strikes amounts to a war crime. Christof Heyns, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, said that a debate in the British parliament would be very important in helping to encourage compliance with international law among the governments that use drones.

"The international framework is clear but its enforcement, especially when it is under stress, as is the case at the moment, depends to a large extent on voluntary compliance by states," he said. "The role of especially the stronger states, such as permanent members of the [UN] Security Council such as the UK, will for better or worse shape the broader international reaction."

Philip Alstron, the previous UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killing, said that Britain could bring greater transparency on drone use by the US.

"If the British government is forced to be more transparent and more forthcoming, that puts great pressure on its allies, and public opinion certainly in the United States will see that what they currently assume to be the reasonable norm is not," Professor Alstron, who now lectures at New York University School of Law, said.

The rapporteurs are concerned that CIA drone strikes in Pakistan could violate international law because it is unclear that an armed conflict is taking place. They also raise doubts about the US's justification for drone attacks.

Washington argues that, under the doctrine of self-defence after the 9/11 attacks, it has authority to hunt any al-Qa'ida or Taliban militant anywhere in the world.

"Self-defence requires action against an immediate threat," Professor Heyns said. "The names of the people targeted [by the US] are often for months on a 'kill list', which does not suggest immediacy. It is not clear how someone halfway round the world can under these circumstances pose a threat that meets the requirement of 'immediacy'."

Asked whether he was worried about other countries using the same argument of self-defence, Professor Heyns said: "Indeed. A war of all against all. Drones are weapons without borders."

The rapporteur noted alarming reports of civilian deaths and expressed concern at allegations that US drones pursue people only because they are behaving suspiciously, or fire on those who rush to the scene of an initial attack, killing them as well.

"One of the big problems is the shortage of information - we simply do not know what is true and can, as a result, not take informed decision," he said. "Transparency is called for."

He plans to present a report on drones to the UN next year. "I also take up the issue with the relevant governments in a direct on-and-off-the-record way," he said.

More than 40 MPs and peers created an all-parliamentary group on drones last month. They have called for greater transparency on the use of Britain's drones. Lord Bates of Langbaurgh, a member of the group, said: "It is a growing and obvious concern, not only how we use them in a way that is ethical, but how we would defend against them being used in a hostile way."

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