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Drones: International Law - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:07 pm on 16th January 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence 2:07 pm, 16th January 2020

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hodgson on securing this debate. I thank other noble Lords for their contributions. I pay tribute to my noble friend and the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, for their excellent work on the APPG on drones.

Following the killing of General Qasem Soleimani by a US drone strike, I know that some concerns have been raised in this place and elsewhere. In particular, my noble friend questions what implications such actions may have for the future use of unmanned aerial systems and their proliferation more generally. So I welcome the opportunity afforded by this debate to clarify Her Majesty’s Government’s position.

Let me start by reiterating a point about the strike on Qasem Soleimani. It is important to be clear that the choice of air platform selected to deliver the strike has no bearing in determining whether the strike was lawful. Article 51 of the UN charter recognises that all states have an inherent right of self-defence, and it is for the United States to say how the criteria for self-defence are met. The UK will always defend the right of countries to defend themselves.

The US case was set out in a letter to the UN Security Council on 8 January. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised the issue of the UK’s relationship with the United States. The United States is a valued ally but, as has been observed in the past, that does not mean that we have to agree on everything. Good friends can reserve the right to disagree on certain things. We are united in our fight against terrorism but, in respect of individual acts, it is for the United States to be responsible for its own actions.

The United States asserted that Soleimani organised the strikes by militia group Kata’ib Hezbollah on 27 December 2019 that targeted a US military base in Kirkuk in Iraq and killed a US civilian contractor. The US is confident that Soleimani came to Baghdad to co-ordinate imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. As one of the commanders of the Quds force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, General Qasem Soleimani certainly had blood on his hands and was behind the murder of numerous United States and British troops.

Before I turn to the use of UAVs and UK practice, I shall deal briefly with the somewhat overlooked but important matter of terminology. The acronym “UAV”, not to mention the popular contraction to “drone”, can lead to an unhelpful and disturbing confusion that struck me when I was preparing for this debate. It is important that we make a distinction. The term “unmanned aerial vehicle” denotes a piece of equipment that, for aeronautical purposes, is flown remotely and with varying degrees of automation and simple functions. However, within the UK Armed Forces, where such a system is armed—as, for example, with the Reaper—the strike function will always be under remote human control and subject to strict operational rules and protocols. It is very important to separate that reality from what is becoming the current fictional lexicon of the video-game mentality. That distinction matters.

Regarding the use of armed unmanned aerial systems and UK practice, respect for international law that governs the use of force is of paramount importance. My noble friend Lord Hodgson referred to mission creep and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, also expressed concerns. I make it clear that our Armed Forces have always known that they are answerable for their conduct on the battlefield. That accountability is not least to Parliament—a matter that the noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, very properly raised. Our Armed Forces have always known that they must conform to the highest standards of personal behaviour and conduct. They have also known that they are bound by the criminal law of England and Wales, and they will always operate in accordance with the laws of war.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, raised the issue of accountability. My department is currently in the process of updating the UK Manual of the Law of Armed Conflict —a programme that will consult widely to ensure that our manual remains one of the most authoritative and continues to influence our international partners. At the same time, updating the manual reinforces Her Majesty’s Government’s commitment to the rules-based international system and international humanitarian law.

I will turn briefly to these vital rules under international humanitarian law. I am proud to say that the UK is a leader in that field and continues to uphold the rules-based international system. The Geneva conventions are a cornerstone of international humanitarian law and remain relevant to this day. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, was particularly concerned about this. I make it clear that the UK encourages all states to apply them in conflict. However, it is not just about ensuring responsibility in the conduct of warfare; there is also a need to ensure that weapons systems such as UAS do not proliferate into the hands of those who would use them unlawfully. That is why the UK applies strict criteria before issuing a licence to export arms, and works with partners, striving to ensure that the rules and regulations remain fit for purpose.

A number of specific points were raised and I will try to deal with them if I can. My noble friend Lord Hodgson and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, raised the issue of embedded personnel. This long-standing practice gives UK personnel valuable experience by operating alongside our allies. However, I reassure your Lordships that our personnel remain subject to UK law and to any policy restrictions placed on them by the MoD. If they are asked to take part in any unagreed operation, they must revert to the MoD for permission.

The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, raised the important issue of the new scrutiny committee in this new Parliament. I am not being evasive, but that is outside my ministerial responsibilities, and indeed it is outwith the remit of the MoD. However, I will ensure that the sentiments that the noble Lord expressed are indeed passed on.

The noble Lords, Lord Janvrin and Lord Judd, raised the matter of imminence. The legal test of an actual or imminent armed attack must be satisfied, and any action must be necessary and proportionate. The Attorney-General explained the Government’s understanding of the meaning of “imminent” in a speech on 11 January 2017. Consideration will be given to the immediacy of the threat, its seriousness and the likelihood of an attack taking place, among other things.

The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Stern and Lady Smith, also raised the issue of targeting and red cards. A robust system to authorise air strikes is in place and is well proven and tested. This process enables all relevant legal and policy requirements, including international humanitarian law, to be considered and applied. Expert legal advice is integral to decision-making, and all military targeting is governed by strict laws of engagement that are in accordance with UK law and international law, as well as any policy restrictions that the Defence Secretary might specify.