UK Drone Policy

Members of the APPG are writing to the Prime Minister to request an update on the Intelligence and Security Committee report into UK lethal drone strikes in Syria, following a recent press report that the intelligence agencies may have withheld information sought by the Committee about the threat posed and the risk of collateral damage in the Khan drone strike. The ISC’s report was submitted to the Prime Minister for redaction in December.

This has caused some concern in the light of the Attorney General’s speech last month, which set out the legal basis for UK military strikes against terror targets overseas ‘in more detail than the Government has before’. Although this is welcome, the AG’s statement that ‘the absence of specific evidence of where an attack will take place or of the precise nature of the attack does not preclude a conclusion that an armed attack is imminent for the purposes of the exercise of a right of self-defence’ suggests that the threshold for the use of lethal force may have been lowered, and paves the way for further drone strikes without the prior consent of Parliament. At the least, it is difficult to reconcile the ‘need for a specific, identifiable imminent attack’ with the argument that ‘all that is required is a general finding that there will be an imminent attack of some kind, somewhere,’ as Professor James Green explains at EJIL:Talk!.

Meanwhile, a key policy document regarding the UK’s policy on the use of drones is being prepare. This offers a further opportunity for the Government to clarify its position, and ensure the UK adopts a standard-setting precedent that is not open to abuse. PQs tabled by APPG co-chair Lucy Powell have revealed that the current draft of ‘The UK Approach to Unmanned Aircraft Systems’ makes a distinction between, and discusses the legal framework for, the employment of remotely piloted air systems both within and outside areas of armed conflict.

The MOD policy is being drafted in parallel with a defence policy review on remotely piloted and wider highly automated systems, and is expected to be published in March.

By contrast, it is disappointing that the MOD declined to release a version of JSP 900 ‘UK Targeting Policy’, in spite of a commitment to produce a releasable version in 2016. The US equivalent – ‘Target Development Standards’ – was made public by the Pentagon last year. Members may wish to follow this up.

The next evidence session for the APPG’s own inquiry into ‘The Use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners’ has been scheduled for 8 March. The inquiry panel and legal advisor Professor Dapo Akande will brief the inquiry panel who will then hear evidence from Namir Shabibi, Jennifer Gibson and Eric King on shared infrastructure and asset sharing.

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