This week Chair Tom Watson MP has written an Official Communication or ‘complaint’ to Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson QC on behalf of the APPG on Drones about unsatisfactory responses from the Government to the Special Rapporteur’s Third Report. The APPG’s concern, based on responses to members’ Parliamentary Questions, is that the Government is still reluctant to engage in debate on the imperative legal questions governing use of armed drones. These are, in effect, the core principles which will define UK use of lethal drones post Afghanistan. It is thought that, notwithstanding the recent Foreign Affairs select committee report on the enduring nature of the long term UK-US relationship, the Government’s position may stem from aversion to participating in an exercise which could be interpreted as a public critique of the US covert drone war.
50% of UK equipment has already been repatriated from Afghanistan and, in the absence of a signed Bilateral Security or Status of Forces Agreement, the rest – including the UK’s 10 Reapers – must follow. It is therefore unlikely that this ‘deafening silence’ can go on for much longer. Failure to respond properly to the Third Report may risk complicating the significant logistical challenges already faced by the MOD in withdrawing from Afghanistan (see yesterday’s Defence Committee report) and diminishing the influence that the UK government has with the United States as its most interoperable ally (see the Defence Committee’s Intervention report).
Members of the APPG are concerned that continued reluctance to engage on how to apply international humanitarian and human rights law to lethal operations outside the hot battlefield may also result in the avoidance of democratic accountability on future use of UK armed drones. This is because the Commons’ convention requiring a debate before committing UK troops abroad may not apply to drones, where they are operated from RAF Waddington.
It may also stymie the MOD providing basic information on the basing options for UK Reapers. It is unfortunate that APPG members, with colleagues on the Defence Committee, are left to speculate about future basing of UK military drones, from Camp Lemonnier in particular. If it is right that the MOD is planning to relocate our Reapers to Djibouti at the end of the year, members are likely to expect a reasonable opportunity for debate and scrutiny of arrangements to ensure that UK personnel and assets cannot be not drawn in to the covert drone strikes carried out from that US Expeditionary base, unwittingly or otherwise. It is hoped that the APPG complaint may help move this debate forward.