Human rights committee: UK drone policy requires ‘urgent clarification’

Committee Chair Harriet Harman
Committee Chair Harriet Harman

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has published a report on the UK government’s policy concerning drones for targeted killing, concluding that the legal basis for the policy requires “urgent clarification”.

The report follows the committee’s inquiry in the wake of the killing of suspected terrorist and UK national Reyaad Khan by an RAF drone strike in Syria.

The report also states that the government needs to make clear the legal basis on which it contributes to the use of lethal force abroad outside of armed conflict by other countries, such as the US.

It concludes that there should be greater accountability for such uses of lethal force and proposes giving the Intelligence and Security Committee a more prominent role in oversight.

The government considers the use of drone attacks abroad outside of armed conflict to be justified if it complies with international law governing the use of force on the territory of another state, and the Law of War.

However, the report sets out a number of areas where the government’s understanding of the legal basis of its policy remains unclear and the committee urges the government to provide greater clarity in their response.

It recommends that the government establishes how it understands key concepts, such as what constitutes an “imminent threat” under international law. Most significantly, the government should explain why in its view the Law of War, rather than human rights law, applies to a use of lethal force abroad outside armed conflict.

Committee Chair Harriet Harman said: “We find ourselves today in a new situation for which our long established legal frameworks were not designed. The line between war in the traditional sense and countering the crime of terrorism has been blurred by two developments: rapid technological advance, including drone technology, has transformed the nature of the threat from terrorism and the capacity to counter it; and the nature of armed conflict has changed, with the steady rise of non-state armed groups such as ISIL/Da’esh with the intent and capability to carry out terrorist attacks globally and aspirations without territorial limit.

“When dealing with an issue of such grave importance, taking a life in order to protect lives, the government should have been crystal clear about the legal basis for this action from the outset. They were not. The statements of the Prime Minister, the Permanent Representative to the UN and the Defence Secretary in the aftermath of this military action were confused and confusing.

“As the world faces the grey area between terrorism and war, there needs to be a new international consensus on when it is acceptable for a state to take a life outside of armed conflict. The UK government should lead in the establishment of that consensus and thereby ensure that states are able to take the action which is necessary to protect their citizens without breaching the rule of law.”

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