As the APPG on Drones hosted a parliamentary view and discussion of the film ‘Eye in the Sky’ yesterday, the Defence Secretary released an Armed Forces update on the convention to debate ‘conflict decisions.’ Both raise questions about the role of parliament in the authorisation and oversight of lethal operations abroad, in particular for joint or assisted ‘special’ operations involving third party states. Both are pertinent following recent reports alleging the UK’s ‘crucial and sustained’ role in US-led drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan.
The Vice investigation, led by Namir Shabibi, suggests that UK Special Forces have been seconded to the Secret Intelligence Services to ‘find and fix’ targets for the US and assess the effect of drone strikes. Since the UK officers are ‘seconded,’ it appears that the Defence Secretary may be relieved of his responsibility to answer parliamentary questions about these activities. Conversely, the FCO (responsible for the SIS) have stated only that ‘drone strikes against terrorist targets in Yemen are a matter for the Yemeni and US governments’ and ‘we do not comment on intelligence matters.’
The legal, political and moral implications of any UK involvement are profound, especially because the reports suggest that some relevant drone strikes involved the ‘signature strikes’ of unknown military-age male targets and civilian harm to children. Members David Davis (Con), Tom Brake (Lib), Kirsten Oswald (SNP) and Clive Lewis (Lab) heard directly from Malik Jalal, guest of former DPP Ken McDonald, last week about the impact of the US ‘kill list’ and drone strikes on communities.
Former APPG Chair Tom Watson repeatedly asked the Defence and Foreign Secretaries about UK activity in Yemen: see for example here, here and here. The Vice investigation casts doubt on the completeness or veracity of these responses, which may now be reviewed by the Procedure Committee. As Chair David Davis told Vice, ‘the involvement of the British state is something that the government ought to make plain to Parliament.’
On this, it is welcome that the Defence Secretary affirmed in yesterdays’ statement commitment that parliament should have an opportunity to debate ‘conflict decisions’ including the deployment of troops other than ‘routine deployments’ (this distinction treads on ‘thin ice’ according to Crispin Blunt.) However, the Defence Secretary also emphasised exceptions to the convention and resisted recent attempts for clarification of its application to increased use of (a) drones for remote surveillance and/or targeting and (b) Special Forces. Concern about democratic accountability for this ‘beefed up’ element of UK Defence Strategy and the growing trend towards remote and covert warfare (highlighted by Professor Paul Rogers) is unlikely to go away. Yougov surveys on public support of the key role of parliament in conflict decisions suggest this too. In the absence of other options, some members, including Kirsten Oswald and David Davis, have called for a new inquiry into the allegations in the recent Vice and Reprieve reports. The Government has not responded yet.