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Drones: International Law - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:02 pm on 16th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport) 2:02 pm, 16th January 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for securing today’s important debate. I have been watching developments between the US and Iran with great concern, as we all have. First, I stress the need for de-escalation, the restoration of relations between countries and for international institutions to be the primary mechanism for defusing the situation. Diplomacy not drones must be the priority when it comes to the Middle East, but the US strike assassinating Qasem Soleimani marks a new chapter. Despite the use of drones increasing, this was the first time the US had used the technology to kill another country’s senior military commander on foreign soil.

I fear that we are moving toward a dangerous world where drones are believed to be a quick and easy solution to complex problems—but, as the assassination demonstrates, any use of military force has serious knock-on consequences. These have ranged from retaliatory strikes on two Iraqi bases housing US troops to at least 400 UK troops in Iraq being placed in immediate danger and a commercial plane being shot down by Iran, killing 176 people. While shooting down a passenger jet is a despicable act, the incident illustrates the impact that escalating tensions can have on totally innocent civilians. I will take this opportunity to express my condolences to the families and friends affected.

The use of drones outside armed conflict often rests on the legal argument for self-defence under international law. Indeed, the US initially stated that the drone strike was justified as a self-defence measure. However, this shifted in the days after the strike, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pointing to previous actions of Soleimani as justification. Since the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings said that the attack “most likely” violated international law, can the Minister confirm whether the Government consider that the use of drones must be in accordance with international law? The Joint Human Rights Committee has called for the UK to take the lead in building a consensus on how legal frameworks are applied, and I reiterate this today.

Despite legal questions, drones and other autonomous weapons will continue to reshape warfare. Jane’s Information Group estimates that more than 80,000 surveillance drones and almost 2,000 attack drones will be purchased around the world in the next 10 years. The country that invests the earliest and most aggressively may end up in a position of military supremacy. People have argued that we should welcome such weapons systems because of their increased accuracy and the removal of harm for not only military personnel but civilians. While this can be the case, civilian casualties can never be ruled out, and autonomous weapons will continue to raise numerous concerns around oversight, accountability and human rights. In the short term, a definition of autonomous weapons would help lead to the creation of norms, even in the absence of the clear application of legal frameworks. Can the Minister explain why the UK Government are yet to adopt any internationally recognised definition of autonomous weapons? We should also use parliamentary committees to increase scrutiny of the MoD’s use of drones and emerging technology.

The long-term question is whether humans will be removed from the loop, allowing AI-powered drones to select and kill targets with no human oversight. While the UN Secretary-General has described such machines as “morally repugnant”, the UK spoke forcefully against regulation on lethal autonomous weapons at UN talks last year. Can the Minister explain why the Government are so against regulation? The UK should be taking a lead on this issue internationally and considering how arms treaties can be upgraded to stop the development of fully autonomous weapons.

Drones, machine learning and AI have already started an arms race between nations that will reshape geopolitics in the years to come. While I welcome the Prime Minister calling on parties to “dial this thing down” to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East, the oversight and accountability of drones must be dialled up.