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Drones: International Law - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:55 pm on 16th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence) 1:55 pm, 16th January 2020

My Lords, like other Members in the Chamber, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for bringing forward this timely debate today. It is flagged on the annunciator as “Drones: International Law” but the Order Paper and the original documents suggest a slightly different title.

I would like to raise two key themes with the Minister: international law and the UK’s use of drones, and how our relationship with the United States fits into questions associated with the impact of the strike on 3 January; and further questions about the nature of our alliance with the United States and how far Her Majesty’s Government are able to rest on the assurances of the United States Government.

The APPG on Drones, of which I am not a member but whose meetings I occasionally attend, provided a useful briefing. It pointed out that a German court has said that the German airbase of Ramstein cannot be used for drones precisely because there is a concern about the Americans acting illegally in some of their attacks on Yemen—a concern that the collateral damage and some of the deaths there have gone beyond what is acceptable under international law.

In a letter to my noble friend Lady Northover regarding the drone strike on 3 January, the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, said:

“It is well established that states have the right to use force in self-defence. The United States have said that Soleimani was plotting imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. I do not doubt what they have said.”

I am not here to question whether what the United States said about that attack was correct or to query the integrity of the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, in accepting those assurances, but how far are Her Majesty’s Government able to interrogate United States actions ahead of time? How far are Her Majesty’s Government able to accept the assurances of the United States Government? How far are we able to be reassured? How far can the Minister reassure your Lordships’ House that when we work with the United States through our existing legal arrangements on its drone programmes, on any activity that involves UK drones, UK intelligence and our bases in Cyprus and elsewhere, as the noble Lord said, any activity undertaken by the United States is within the framework of international law?

There are clear challenges in international law. Your Lordships’ International Relations and Defence Committee, on which I serve, in a report last year raised concerns that the international law-based order is already under threat. We are used to it being challenged by countries we see as, perhaps, our opponents in the international order; it is more of a problem when those threats come from our closest ally, the United States.

In our report we said that there were some challenges from the United States with Donald Trump as President, and that some of those challenges were likely to be much exacerbated in the event that a Trump Administration lasts not four years but eight years. So, as we look to the next American elections, are Her Majesty’s Government assured that the United States, as our closest ally, is acting within the framework of international law? Can we be assured that Ministers are acting, at least in private, to ensure that the United States is aware that we will not be complicit in illegal activities? Obviously I do not expect the Minister to suggest today anything that has been said. I assume that any conversations are in private, but I would like to be reassured that such conversations are happening.

The drone strike on 3 January raised a set of precedents that we need to be reassured are not likely to recur. The attack was on a state individual, not a non-state actor. It was undertaken without the permission of the host state—Iraq—and the President of the United States seemed to suggest that perhaps part of the motivation could be retaliation. Can the Minister assure us that the United Kingdom does not accept that we should in any case act without the permission of the host state, that we should not act outside a mandate from the United Nations and that we would not attack state individuals?

Can the Minister also give us a little more clarity on the UK’s understanding of “self-defence”? Clearly it is a concept understood in international law, yet in the US’s attempt to say that the attack on 3 January was in self-defence and in the light of an imminent threat, that word can sometimes seem in danger of mission creep, as the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said. Is the Minister reassured that the threat was imminent? Can she tell us how the United Kingdom Government define “imminent”? Perhaps it is not quite as finite a concept as it might appear.

There is clearly a danger of escalation, and escalation affects not just the United States and Iran but UK troops in Iraq. The attack on 3 January raised threats to international law and to the United Kingdom. What are the UK Government doing to ensure that our links with our allies will improve our security, not undermine it?