After the Security Impact of Drones

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Chair Tom Watson and Vice-Chair David Davis have tabled ‘Early Day Motion 487 Proposal for UK Policy on Drone Use’ to support three key findings by the Policy Commission ‘The Security Impact of Drones’ published on 22 October. The motion is here.

The 12 Commissioners, chaired by Professor Sir David Omand, explore ‘the issues that confront the UK government in the development, regulation and use of remotely piloted aircraft (‘RPA’).’ The Executive Summary is here, and Chair’s forward here.

Whilst the Commission acknowledge that RPA or ‘drones’ represent an ‘increasingly important potential for the for the modern military as well as for civil authorities,’ and aver that RPA are not ‘intrinsically problematic,’ 3 ‘significant’ obstacles are highlighted and recommendations made.

The first challenge appears to mirror the Rt Hon Philip Hammond’s ‘Defence of Drones’: the need to gain public understanding and acceptance of the ethical and legal frameworks within which the RAF operated armed RPA. Analysis of Chapter 3, with commentary by Professors Omand and Wheeler, reveals this is not the case. Rather than a PR exercise, the Commission accept that ‘the litmus test’ of the UK’s procurement, deployment and use of armed RPA is compliance with the law. The obstacle identified may be overcome only when the Government formulates and discloses a clear national policy on drone use.

Significantly, the Commissioners agree that this policy must articulate the UK position on application of international human rights and humanitarian law in complex conflicts. It must also distinguish UK practice, and protect UK personnel, from the risk of complicity in the targeted killing of suspects outside traditional battlefields. To use the wording of the Commission, the UK ‘simply does not accept the specific US legal justification for using RPA for targeted killing AQ-related suspects’. In formulating such a policy, the Commissioners agree that the UK is well placed to influence allies and help develop consensus within NATO on the lawful use of drones.

Other facets of this recommendation include: engaging actively with the questions posed by Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson in his February report; reassurance that UK personnel embedded with US forces remain compliant with the UK rules of engagement; reassurance that the Reaper Agreement will not bypass the UK rules of engagement; and a higher degree of transparency from the MoD including disclosure of fact finding investigations into civilian casualties (except where operational considerations preclude this) and of UK-US personnel and asset-sharing.

It follows that the Government’s response to the Defence Committee report ‘RPAS: Current and Future Use’ on current British doctrine should be revisited at the earliest opportunity and before the Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 is completed. A UK policy might come in various forms: a dedicated written policy, update to JDN 2/11, statement to the House or part of the SDSR 2015.

Similarly, on intelligence-sharing, the ‘Government should confirm that guidance has been issued to staff and safeguards put in place, to ensure that in sharing intelligence with the US government and military, the UK does not inadvertently collude in RPA or other counter-terrorism actions contrary to international law.’ It is suggested that, given this recommendation, the Guidance should now be disclosed, drawing on the precedent established by the FCO who published the principles of the ‘Consolidated Guidance to Intelligence Officers and Service Personnel 2011.’

The second challenge is addressing concerns that the more advanced drones, such as the Taranis, may lead to the development of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (‘LAWS’). The Commission supports ongoing work to automate sub-systems that support RPA, but concludes that LAWS cannot be programmed to comply with humanitarian and human rights law. The Commissioners urge the Government to take a leading role in the CCW conference in Geneva this week in renewing the CCW mandate to continue work on LAWS, which may include a formal meeting of experts to review the limitations and requirements of international law.

At the APPG meeting on ‘Drones and the increasing autonomy of weapons systems’ last week, Professor Omand went further, advocating in favour of a comprehensive national policy on LAWS, and an explanation of how meaningful human control over weapons systems in development or use is currently being assessed in order to inform the debate.

The third challenge identified is the concern for safety and privacy in the integration and use of drones for security in national airspace. The Commission summarises existing regulation (also the subject of a recent parliamentary POST note) highlights technologies such as ‘sense and avoid’ in need of attention, and discusses the potential for further regulation at an international, EU and domestic level. The recommendations include the need for new codes of conduct to safeguard the privacy of citizens and cover procedures for authorising surveillance by RPA; and for the Home Office to accept a policy lead for this, for promoting the use of RPA by the emergency services, and for public consultation.

Other findings worth noting include the importance of effective parliamentary oversight, founded on reliable information; the importance of post facto investigations and accessible arrangements for compensation; and the need for further in-depth research on the psychological impact of drones on civilian populations.

The emphasis of the Commission and press release – on potential for application of the technology – will undoubtedly be a focus point for critics. Nonetheless, although underlying source material is not always clear and some questions remain unresolved, it suggested that the Commission has negotiated a difficult course within its agreed parameters. The strength of the report lies in the concessions made and identification of ‘To-Do’ items for the Government in terms of policy, research and disclosure. These come at a critical point in the formulation of UK military and domestic policies: the Commission has real potential to influence next steps.

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