A German court has found that part of US drone strikes in Yemen were “not compatible with international law” and asserted that Germany must “do more” to prevent its territory from being used in unlawful strikes. The court found that Germany assisted the US programme through providing relevant information and permitting the US to operate out of Ramstein air base in Germany. The case marks the first time a European country has been found to play a “central role” in US drone strikes.
Following this ground-breaking ruling, and drawing on the recommendations considering partner assistance in its 2018 cross-party report, The UK’s Use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners, the APPG on Drones issues the below statement, signed by Chair Baroness Stern and Vice-Chairs Alex Sobel MP, Tom Brake MP, Caroline Lucas MP, Lord Hodgson of Astely Abbotts, Lord Wallace of Tankerness and Lord Macdonald of River Glaven:
On March 5, President Trump signed an executive order, diluting recording requirements on civilian casualties from drone strikes; only the most recent move in a string of roll-backs of safeguards and protections. Seventeen days later, a ground-breaking German court ruling has found that part of US drone strikes in Yemen are unlawful.[i] The case marks the first time a European state has been found to play a “central role” in US drone strikes.[ii] The Court held that Germany’s role means it has an obligation to protect the right to life of those being targeted, and so must take action to ensure that the US respects international law in its use of Ramstein Air Base, situated in Germany. The German Government’s understanding that all US strikes were lawful was found by the court to be based on “insufficient fact-finding and ultimately not legally sustainable”.
This decision and increasing reports of civilian casualties in areas where the UK has defence partnerships – including Yemen – increases the pressure on the UK to ensure that it has meaningful safeguards, and transparent, accountable and clear policy in place to mitigate any risk in assisting partners. In the absence of any clear legal basis or stated public policy for this assistance, UK drone policy risks being complicit in civilian harm, and opens military personnel up to criminal prosecution.
Evidence submitted to the APPG on Drones inquiry the UK’s Use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners, raised significant concerns about British involvement in US strikes in Yemen. Reported UK assistance included intelligence-sharing, information triangulation and tracking informants via use of the Menwith Hill base in Yorkshire. Furthermore, US, UK and Yemeni diplomatic sources have confirmed that British personnel have assisted in intelligence gathering at a Joint Operations Room at the Yemeni National Security Bureau.
Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights, 2011-2017, told the APPG that intelligence ties between the UK and US are so closely intertwined that it is “inevitable” that information has been passed to the US that has been used to target drone strikes in covert campaigns such as Pakistan and Yemen. He added that “it would be absurd if it were not the case.”
The legality of the US programme has been widely challenged by UN bodies[iii], governments[iv] and civil society.[v] It has also been criticised for causing a large number of unacknowledged civilian deaths[vi] on an impermissibly wide interpretation of international law. In this landscape, a case for UK liability under Article 16 of the International Law Commission’s Articles on State Responsibility is difficult to dismiss.
Following the German ruling, the APPG on Drones once again urges the UK Government to reevaluate the legal basis, policies and processes underpinning its assistance to allies. This process is crucial if we want to mitigate the risk of prosecution currently facing our personnel, and to ensure that the UK is not assisting in unlawful strikes. The APPG on Drones has repeatedly called for the publication of UK policy and clarity on the legal framework that informs the use of armed drones and assistance to allies.
The APPG’s inquiry report: The UK’s Use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners, provides detailed recommendations to the Government regarding partner operations. Drawing upon these recommendations, we urge the Government to reflect on the German ruling in relation to the UK’s position, and provide assurances that existing policy protects UK military personnel from participation in partner-assistance that may be contrary to international or UK law.
[i]The court found that part of the US strikes were “not compatible with international law” and asserted that Germany must “do more” to prevent its territory from being used in unlawful strikes
[ii]It was found that Germany assisted the US programme through providing relevant information and permitting the US to operate out of Ramstein air base in Germany
[v]Rachel Stohl, An action plan on US drone policy: Recommendations for the Trump Administration, Stimson Center, 7 June 2018 (https://bit.ly/2u9G5nc); Joint Statement: European Assistance to the US Lethal Drone Programme, signatories incl. Airwars, Amnesty International, Article 36, Rights Watch, Human Rights Clinic (Columbia Law School) and International Commission of Jurists; Rasha AbdulRahim, Deadly assistance: The role of European states in US drone strikes, Amnesty International, 19 April 2018 (https://bit.ly/2KMGYxp); Amrit, Singh, Death by Drones: Civilian Harm Caused by the U.S. Targeted Killings in Yemen, Open Society Justice Initiative and Mwatana Organization for Human Rights, 2015 (https://osf.to/2HMh1Lu)
[vi]Ben Emmerson, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, A/HRC/25/59, 28 February 2014 (https://bit.ly/2KPjYgr)