The new Parliament provides renewed opportunity for members to examine and scrutinise the Government’s policy on the use of armed drones, in particular by building on the progress made in the last Parliament.
The previous Parliament, though short, saw some significant developments for the UK’s approach to the use of armed drones. For the first time, the UK undertook the targeted killing by drone of a British citizen in Syria without Parliamentary authorisation. Prompted by the legal questions that arose from that strike, the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) conducted an inquiry into the Government’s policy, and found that the Government did have a policy to use lethal force abroad outside armed conflict for counterterrorism purposes. Significantly, this policy was based on a ‘misunderstanding of the legal frameworks that apply’. When the Government responded to the JCHR report, the JCHR accused it of ‘ducking central questions’ that arose.
Further, the Attorney General gave a speech setting out the UK’s understanding of the legal basis for military strikes against terror targets overseas. The AG worryingly seemed to align with the controversial position adopted by the US for the purposes of its drone programme, by adopting an expansive definition of the ‘imminence’ standard.
Going forward into the new Parliament the APPG and the JCHR will be pressing for further clarity on the outstanding questions and uncertainty surrounding the Government’s legal position. In particular, the APPG will encourage the JCHR to go ahead with its request that the Attorney General appear before it to further explain the Government’s legal position.
The MOD has also been developing what seems to be a key policy document, the UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems. APPG PQs established that this document will address the legal framework for the use of armed drones both within and outside armed conflict.
The Intelligence and Security Committee’s Report, UK Lethal Drone Strikes in Syria, was released just before the dissolution of Parliament. That report brings to the fore the limited prospects for accountability for the Government’s targeted killing policy in the UK’s current Parliamentary system. To summarise, the Government itself was able to limit the scope of the inquiry, withhold crucial evidence from it, and impede the normal redactions procedure as a result of the early election. The report in particular raised wider policy questions around the Ministerial decision-making process, and the assessment of civilian casualties, that warrant further scrutiny. For a detailed analysis of the report, see this blog post by Rights Watch UK.
Separately, the APPG on Drones launched its own inquiry into ‘The Use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners’. The purpose of this inquiry is to analyse the emerging technologies of armed drones, with a particular focus on the ways in which the UK works with allies when using them. The Inquiry Report will make recommendations to ensure an appropriate level of transparency and accountability for these operations in Parliament. Two oral evidence sessions were held in the previous Parliament, and further evidence sessions will be held now that Parliament has returned. All written and oral evidence received in the course of our Inquiry has now been published on our website.
Going forward into the new Parliament, the APPG’s priorities will include:
- The holding of final evidence sessions for the APPG Inquiry before the summer recess
- A visit by Inquiry Members to Pakistan to hear directly from victims of the US drone programme
- Publication of the report of the APPG Inquiry and follow up with debates in Parliament
- Seeking transparency from the Government over the forthcoming policy document The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and ensuring adequate Parliamentary scrutiny and oversight of this policy
- Following up the ISC’s report UK Lethal Drone Strikes in Syria to consider how the gaps in accountability for the UK’s targeted killing policy can be addressed
- Continuing to press for clarity on the UK’s approach to civilian casualty investigation, monitoring and transparency
The APPG encourages all new and returning MPs to join the APPG to further its work in examining and scrutinising the Government’s targeted killing policy.