Publish drones guidance

Professor Sir David Omand and Professor Michael Clark have joined forces with the APPG Chair and Vice-Chairs in asking the Foreign Secretary to consider disclosure of the guidelines governing when the UK may – and when it may not – share intelligence to help locate individuals on the US ‘kill list.’ The FT covered the request here. A copy of the letter is here.

The signatories argue that there is an increasing public interest in disclosure of the guidelines on the passing or use of UK intelligence, in the context of the US covert drone programme. Disclosure would safeguard UK officers working with allies from ‘inadvertent complicity’; and go some way to allaying concerns that the Government is aiding lethal drone strikes outside traditional battlefields, contrary to our understanding of the law. It would also underline the distinction between the rules of engagement and use of UK armed drones and those of the US operating in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, as well as Syria and Iraq.

The letter points out that the request for disclosure should not impact adversely on individual operations or the special bilateral relationship, at least in the longer term, as NATO allies work towards a common position on the lawful use of armed drones. It reminds the FCO that safeguarding arrangements are a form of mitigation, and provide evidence of a state’s intent.

The significance of the letter is the way in which it builds on common ground between the signatories, offering a practical way forward for the FCO. It draws together themes identified, and recommendations made, by the Birmingham Policy Commission, ‘The Security Impact of Drones,’ and reports from the Defence, Intelligence and Security and now Foreign Affairs Committees. The letter picks up those issues left unresolved by the case of Noor Khan. It is implicit that the guidelines exist, and purport to restrict use of data for lethal targeting.

Pressure on the Foreign Office is growing. The Foreign Affairs Committee took up the baton in their report ‘the FCO’s human rights work in 2013’ published on Friday. The Committee analyse the UK’s response to the UNHRC’s resolution L32 on use of drones and advise the FCO to acknowledge its difference of opinion with UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson ‘on whether there is international consensus on the legal parameters surrounding the use of drones.’ The Committee recommends that the FCO ‘provide a written response detailing its points of disagreement…to both Parliament and the Human Rights Council.’

The APPG letter and Foreign Affairs Committee report invite the FCO to move beyond its stock responses, that the international law is ‘absolutely clear’ and ‘there is a long standing policy not to comment on intelligence matters.’ They explain why this is necessary and serves the interests of Government, as well as the public. It is hoped that, together, they will make some headway.

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