A warning bell

A Reaper MQ-9 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) operated by 39 Squadron of the Royal Air Force, awaits take off from Creech Air Force Bace, Nevada prior to a training mission over the west coast of America.  39 Sqn, who are parented by RAF Waddington in the UK, currently have around 70 personnel based in Nevada covering all trades from Pilots to admin staff. Image from MoD (reproduction does not imply endorsement)

As senior parliamentarians question increasing drone use and response to the UN Special Rapporteur, litigation by Yemeni victims in both the UK and Germany may tip the Government to re-evaluate the need for a high level policy on use of armed drones.

The new questions come as Frank Pace, President of GA-ASI, has disclosed that the NATO Member Reaper User Group will serve to inform European Reaper operators about US tactics and facilitate mutual ‘support solutions.’ The Ministry of Defence has also announced  redeployment of 2 UK MQ-9 Reapers to add to the strike capability in Iraq. The Reapers will be operated from an undisclosed Middle East base (most likely Al Minhad, Al Udeid or Akrotiri) along side Predator drones as part of the US-led mission. Plans for the 8 UK Reapers in Afghanistan, and the UK-US Reaper Agreement, remain unclear.

Members may recall the Government’s response to the Defence Committee Tenth Report of Session on ‘RPAS: Current and Future UK Use,’ which concludes that there is no longer any need for to update Joint Doctrinal Note 2/11, ‘The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems.’ Instead, the MOD have incorporated the ‘issues’ raised by the JDN into the more general, and conceptual, Air and Space Doctrine and Global Strategic Trends 5. This approach reflects the technical argument promoted by Lieutenant Colonel Peter Sonnex that drones should be treated as any other item of military equipment, without specific regard to capabilities enabling innovative tactics: extensive operational outreach, loiter-time and sensors.

Mr Saeed al Yousefi is amongst those who disagree. Helped by Reprieve and Deighton Pierce Glynn, his Letter Before Claim to the MOD argues that he is entitled to know whether UK Reapers will be redeployed for use in Yemen, where he lives in the Marib province with his family. Mr Al Yousefi explains that he lives in fear of drones hovering over his village for between 8 and 12 hours a day.

His claim is founded on (i) the parliamentary convention requiring informed debate prior to engagement in military conflict and (ii) the common law obligation, outside the statutory regime, on public authorities to provide information and reasons: Kennedy v Charity Commission [2014] UKSC 20. Argument (i) builds on APPG Chair Tom Watson’s written questions on the convention, and members’ Early Day Motion 136. Mr Al Yousefi emphasises the strong public interest in transparency and anticipated significant change in UK drone policy, as it exists and is understood.

Faisal bin Al Jaber, a preacher from Khashamir who opposes Al Qaeda, claims that the German Ministry of Defence has imputed knowledge of drone imagery analysis and technical direction at the Distributed Ground System within US Ramstein Air Operations Centre. He claims these activities aid the selection and lethal targeting of Yemeni nationals from Creech Air base via fibre optic cables and a SATCOM relay facility. Helped by ECCHR and Reprieve, Mr Al Jaber claims the German Government should restrict use of Ramstein by the US to support targeting of suspected terrorists in Yemen because this is unlawful under German law. He cites the research of Dr Peter Schaapveld, presented to an APPG meeting in March 2013.

These are important questions. The claimants (and parliamentarians) are unlikely to be satisfied by assertions that Germany and the UK operate drones in accordance with international law: use of drones and their support systems depends on how that law is applied. With drawdown from Afghanistan and new Reaper groupings imminent, it may become counter-productive to avoid forming a dedicated, strategic policy on use of armed drones, based on international law.

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