The new parliament and drones

This week’s Commons’ Briefing paper, an ‘Overview of Military Drones used by the UK Armed Forces’ provides an introduction on ‘the most contentious conventional weapons system currently in use’ – and several reasons why members should join the APPG on Drones. The brief notes APPG scrutiny of the use and development of drone technology, which continues to be controversial in terms of novelty, legality, morality and utility. Transparency and accountability are central themes.

The paper highlights, as has the APPG Chair, that development of UK policy is at a key stage as the MOD considers how drones will fit into its future force plans. In particular, the current Strategic Defence and Security Review offers an opportunity to consider the issues identified in the ‘UK Approach to Unmanned Systems’ and, more recently, the Policy Commission ‘Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK’. It is understood that the Development Concepts and Doctrine Centre is writing a paper on the future of unmanned systems to 2045; a new Joint Doctrinal Note or Concept Note should follow. This will invite high-level, joined-up thinking on drone use and implications for the first time, as the APPG urged through the last parliament.

Meanwhile, the APPG has reviewed a refusal to disclose the ‘Drones Guidance’ under the Freedom of Information Act; and has a hearing date fixed for its appeal to the Information Rights Tribunal on the transparency of the Government’s RPAS Working Group and, more broadly, into policy-making and information-sharing. Stepping in the right direction, the RPAS Working Group has initiated a Sciencewise consultation to explore public views on drones, privacy, data-protection and security. Members may know that, following evidence to the Lords EU Committee report into the Civilian Use of Drones, the RPAS Group anticipates the integration of drones into unsegregated airspace by 2018.

A recent FOI on the MQ9 Reaper Users Group has revealed some additional information about the 7 ground control stations, training, logistical support and control network of the current 10 UK Reapers, now all based (or perhaps stored) in the Middle East at undisclosed locations. This is welcome, but once again invites consideration of the parliamentary convention requiring informed debate on military intervention.

The Chair has asked the Ministry of Defence for an update on discussions with coalition partners on the tracking and response to allegations of civilian casualties in Iraq. The remote nature of our intervention poses a number of unique questions concerning the monitoring of drone use and impact. The MOD may have the opportunity to lead here in the establishment of international norms and mechanisms for the investigation of civilian casualties and provision for meaningful compensation. The Chair’s letter welcomes NGO partners’ request to President Obama for thorough, independent review of all allegations of civilian casualties in lethal counter-terrorism strikes wherever they take place, and whether or not US citizens are involved. This follows the US President’s unprecedented apology for the January covert ‘signature’ strike in Pakistan  killing an Italian and US citizen.

Last week Tom Watson and David Davies MPs’ noted in their challenge to the  surveillance and data retention legislation ‘DRIPA’ that EU data should not leave the EU without proper safeguards, failing which there was a risk that metadata shared with the US could be used for lethal targeting unlawful in the UK. It is not difficult to spot that the Claimants also run the APPG on Drones. The APPG Officers’ submission on the Interception Code, also sent to David Anderson QC for his review of investigatory powers, has been uploaded here.

The APPG will welcome new members and hold its AGM and inaugural elections on 16 June. This will be followed by a meeting on the ‘Political Effects of UAVs on Conflict and Cooperation’ headed by Professor Nick Wheeler of the ICCS. Wheeler will lead a discussion on original comparative research in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen exploring how the use and perception of drones shape propensities for conflict and cooperation between states. The session will draw from a conference on the Political Effects of UAVs, also led by Wheeler, at the Royal Aeronautical Society this Friday.

Amrit Singh, author of OSF Justice Initiative’s ‘Death by Drone‘, Chris Woods, author of Sudden Justice and Jennifer Gibson, author of Reprieve’s ‘You Never Die Twice‘ have been invited to discuss their research on 23 June at a meeting on the investigation of and response to civilian harm by US drone strikes outside traditional battlefields. All members are welcome.

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