UK: Armed drones: disquiet over government arguments on "targeted killing"


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"We are disappointed that the Government’s response does not contain a full explanation of the Government’s “detailed and developed thinking on these complex issues”. We had hoped that the work we did in our inquiry, and our reasoned Report, deserved such an explanation. Rather, the Government declines to state its understanding of the law that applies to lethal drone strikes outside of armed conflict on the basis that this is “hypothetical”. We do not find this a satisfactory response."

The Joint Committee on Human Rights is not happy with the government's response to an earlier report and raises numerous other criticisms in its conclusions and recommendations: The Government’s policy on the use of drones for targeted killing: Government Response to the Committee’s Second Report of Session 2015–16 (pdf).

The government was responding to the committee's report of April 2016: The Government’s policy on the use of drones for targeted killing (pdf)

A press release from human rights organisation Reprieve highlighted the issues raised by the government's response, saying that: " The British Government has adopted some of the key principles of the US covert drone programme."

The government's response states that:

"It must be right that states are able to act in self-defence in circumstances where there is evidence of further imminent attacks by terrorist groups, even if there is no specific evidence of where such an attack will take place or of the precise nature of the attack."

Reprieve note that:

"This diverges sharply from customary international law on the issue and matches almost exactly the controversial definition of an “imminent” threat used by the US to justify a covert programme which has resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths for which no one has been held accountable. The US Government has re-defined imminent such that it 'does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack …will take place in the immediate future.'"

Or, as Jennifer Gibson of Reprieve put it:

"It now appears as if the UK has followed the US down that slippery-slope of US-style assassination programmes, re-defining key legal terms in a way that potentially turns the whole world into a battlefield and sets dangerous precedents for how other states might act in future."

Meanwhile a new report from the Drone Campaign Network (link) "calls for renewed push to challenge the growing use of armed drones," and "highlights some of the key issues surrounding the growing use of armed drones. In a readable and accessible way it examines the arguments around civilian casualties, how drones have enabled a rapid expansion of targeted killing and how drones are lowering the threshold for use of armed force."

See: Drone Wars: Out of Sight, Out of Mind, Out of Control (pdf)

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