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Drones: International Law - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:41 pm on 16th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Judd Lord Judd Labour 1:41 pm, 16th January 2020

My Lords, my interests and experience relevant to my position on this are on the record.

We all owe a great debt to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for introducing this debate on a crucial issue. I underline the word “crucial”, with all its significance. The work that he consistently does on drones is to be congratulated.

Agnès Callamard, the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, said that the test for so-called anticipatory self-defence is very narrow. It must be a necessity that is instant, overwhelming and leaving no choice of means and no moment of deliberation. Frankly, those requirements are unlikely to be met in the circumstances of the US-targeted drone attack on the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani.

Targeted assassinations, using drones or otherwise, are likely to be highly counterproductive, especially in the longer term, because the law protects everyone, including the people of the US. Other countries are likely to follow the practice and example set by the States, ourselves or anybody else.

Finally, and perhaps most directly relevant to this debate, the growing trend of armed UAV proliferation among state and non-state actors, and its increased use, as illustrated by this instance, gives rise to the need for a clearer legal framework, whether by strengthening or more fully implementing other control regimes, or by formulating distinct measures, to help eliminate any confusion about different applicable standards and rules and to protect the rule of law and international stability, which should incorporate appropriate levels of accountability, transparency and oversight.

Do the Government accept and put on record that they are legally responsible for what happens at the bases on our territory, for our partners’ use of intelligence and assets, and for the UK personnel embedded with partner forces, no matter which state commands? Will they clarify what safeguards and oversight mechanisms currently exist beyond assurances from partners? Is there an oversight mechanism? What is the line of oversight? Are they prepared to give an undertaking to establish and implement a mechanism to ensure that US operations involving UK intelligence and support are lawful, and develop policy safeguards to address areas of risk? These should surely include a robust assessment of the facts, taking into account information provided by the partner and the UK’s own intelligence and civil society sources of information, establishing a mechanism to ensure adherence to international human rights law when strikes are taken outside armed conflict, and establishing a framework to instate conditions on a partnership in the face of concerns, exiting the partnership if no improvement is made.

Currently, and disturbingly, the only options available are to assist or not to assist. Will the Government ask the US Government what is happening at the bases on UK territory? Specifically, is any element of the US drone programme, including but not limited to intelligence gathering, analysis and target development, facilitated through UK bases such as RAF Menwith Hill? In line with Section 17 of the Chilcot report, will the Government carry out standard continuous assessment of civilian casualties and harm resulting from UN drone strikes in places such as Yemen, where UK assistance is pivotal to the outcome of conflict? Will they inform Parliament, or a specific body in Parliament, of any assistance arrangements so that the requisite information is available for informed decision-making?

We are drifting into a new age of great challenge. Technological warfare, particularly when so few current politicians have experience of warfare, can too easily become just another management option, pressing buttons for things to happen remotely. War is a horrible business. Civilians get maimed, hurt and bereaved in warfare. We need to take what is happening extremely seriously. I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for having brought this issue to our attention.