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Drones: International Law - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:48 pm on 16th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Stern Baroness Stern Crossbench 1:48 pm, 16th January 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for arranging this timely debate. He has done the House a great service with his balanced and probing contribution.

Your Lordships’ House has shown an interest in the development of drone warfare since 2012, when the All-Party Group on Drones was established. I declare an interest, having been a member of that group since it was set up. When it was established, its central concern was to ensure that as drones became an intrinsic part of conflict operations everywhere, they were operated by the United Kingdom at all times within a framework of humanitarian and international human rights law, overseen by and accountable to Parliament.

As the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has pointed out, a weapon that can inflict damage from thousands of miles away, and target more precisely than any other weapons system so far in use, requires new thinking. This was a new element in warfare that was developing fast, and a framework was needed to ensure that the use of this new weaponry would follow the obligation to protect civilians in conflict and operate under international law.

During the previous Parliament, the all-party group carried out an extensive inquiry entitled The UK’s Use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners. The inquiry had the involvement of distinguished experts. It was chaired by Professor Michael Clarke, former director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, and advised by Professor Dapo Akande, co-director of the Oxford University Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict. Evidence for the inquiry was taken from senior military figures, among others.

The inquiry report stated:

“In general, the United Kingdom has had a good story to tell on the deployment of drones for a range of military purposes. Over the last two decades, the UK’s use of military drones has been highly constrained and was widely regarded by other countries, and by the United Nations, as a model of responsible and ethical use. It was also regarded as different in some significant respects to the way lethal drones were used by the United States.”

However, it also concluded that

“without clear policy and sound legal basis, UK armed drones are flying into political and operational danger, risking both harm to innocent civilians and opening up personnel to criminal prosecution. The UK’s use of lethal force by drone without parliamentary approval, and its assistance to partners’ lethal use of drones risks violating national and international law.”

The report made a number of recommendations, and at the time of a new Government it seems appropriate to bring some of these to the attention of the Minister, in the hope that the Government will be prepared to consider them afresh. Some of the recommendations address the role the UK plays in drone strikes when it is working with other state partners and suggest ways to ensure that humanitarian and international laws are respected. For example, the Government should publish their policy on targeted killings: they should at least explain the legal basis; the criteria used and the precautions applied in the selection of targeted individuals; the decision-making process; and, in particular, the process of making sure that every alternative method of neutralising the threat posed by the targeted person has been exhausted.

Transparency is another important area, including the involvement of and accountability to Parliament. The provision of information by the Government is inadequate, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, for his detailed contribution on this. The Defence Committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee, and the Joint Committee on Human Rights can look at certain aspects of drone use that fall within their mandates, but no parliamentary committee has the mandate to conduct comprehensive investigations into a drone strike. The report by our all-party group concluded that parliamentarians should demand greater transparency in the way the UK operates drones. A number of suggestions were proposed for consideration —for example, that the Government should create the post of an independent reviewer of drone operations, in the manner of the successful Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation.

In closing, perhaps I may ask the Minister three questions. First, can she tell the House whether the Government have any plans, or any work in progress, that would put more information on UK drone warfare into the public domain? Secondly, is there any plan to strengthen the accountability to Parliament in respect of drone warfare? Thirdly, if the answer to both these questions is negative—and it would be reasonable for the Minister to say that it is a bit soon in the life of this Parliament to ask such questions—is she prepared to meet some Members of your Lordships’ House, to hear their concerns and take this matter further?