This week Ben Emmerson QC, UN Special Rapporteur, and Professor Michael Clarke, Director General of RUSI addressed MPs, peers, the ambassador of Yemen and members of the Foreign Affairs and Intelligence and Security Committees at an APPG meeting in parliament.
The two experts focused on the following hot topics, which they explored with a surprisingly wide measure of agreement: (i) Emmerson’s ongoing inquiry on drones following his interim report (ii) the role of UK military drones post-Afghanistan (iii) the contrasting practices of the UK and US governments in deploying armed drones and (iv) the complicity of the UK government in the US drone programme by the provision of intelligence which may be deployed for targeting outside armed conflict.
The experts’ broadly agreed position on (iii) and (iv) engaged the audience in some rather overdue discussion on increasing tension between the MOD’s and DOD’s different approach to the law and policy regarding use of drones as a platform to deliver lethal force; the urgent need for debate on how to apply international humanitarian and human rights law to lethal operations; and on possible restrictions to data sharing between the two countries with a view to ensuring that UK information and information-gathering facilities are not used in manner which is incompatible with UK law or policy. Unlike the US, the UK only operate armed drones in Afghanistan and apparently never when there is risk of civilian casualties.
Professor Clarke said: ‘we share information and it’s very hard to say that it is not used to target individuals. There’s a reasonable presumption that sharing information makes us complicit in the US policy…the government and GCHQ prefer not to acknowledge [this] but it’s coming down the track with increasing force….the UK silence [on US drone programme and UK role] is deafening.’ On use of UK armed drones post Afghanistan he said: ‘they will be re-deployed in other areas. They are relatively cheap, risk free and they do a useful job…we’ll be tempted to increase their use’
Ben Emmerson said: ‘this week I will be asking states to come clean…at least we know the US position [on questions of international law raised by the US drones programme including the key definitions of ‘armed conflict’ and ‘combatant’]….I came ferociously opposed to the US analysis but I’ve been brought round: we need to debate this.’
On complicity he said: ‘we agree that intelligence from the UK will be deployed for lethal operations.’
And on use of UK drones post 2014 he said: ‘there is currently no consent that UK drones will be returned to the UK. I take that as an indication that their role is changing to that of counter insurgency…they are likely to be relocated to Africa for the purposes of counter insurgency.’
Professor Clarke, who is well placed to comment on the most pragmatic way forward, concluded by making a proposal that has been mooted by some specialist human rights organisations. He said: ‘ultimately what we want is a declaration that information that is shared…cannot be used for this purpose [targeted killing outside Afghanistan] It is hoped that this debate may contribute towards discussion in government on the four hot topics and next steps.
The response to the Special Rapporteur’s letter inviting the UK government to state its position on the disputed areas of international law and policy which underpin the US drone programme is keenly awaited, as is the Rapporteur’s new inquiry into the surveillance powers and oversight of GCHQ.
A podcast of the meeting, headed ‘UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights’ inquiry on drones’ and hosted jointly with the APPG on UN, is available on the APPG on Drones website. Part 2 of the podcast is here and part 3 is here.