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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

I was just about to observe that the process applies to both UK strikes and those conducted by another nation. However, I am not sure whether it has been used. I shall have to take that back and write to my noble friend.

The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also raised the issue of target selection. Decisions on, and the necessity of proportionality in, the use of force are complex and highly sensitive. They require policy and national security input, including military, intelligence and legal, but the decision-making process enables all aspects to be considered and ensures that they will.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stern, raised a number of issues from her report. I was able to look at it before coming into the debate, particularly the sections on transparency and accountability. These are important issues and the Government would never seek to evade or dodge them, but she will understand that there are mechanisms to ensure accountability, not least the role of Parliament, the role of committees within Parliament, and the right of parliamentarians to ask questions, hold debates and require Statements from Ministers. However, everything that we do has to be under the umbrella of acting in the best interests of the security of the United Kingdom, our citizens and our personnel if they are engaged in service in different parts of the globe. The MoD has a record of respecting parliamentary accountability and, subject to security constraints, of doing its best to co-operate in that regard.

The noble Baroness also raised the issue of an independent reviewer. With the other processes and mechanisms in place, that might be premature, but, as with everything, the MoD will keep an open mind because, as one contributor observed, the whole process is evolving. As with others, we will certainly always assess what is happening and what we think might be necessary or might improve the situation.

The noble Lord, Lord Janvrin, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also raised important issues relating to the operational use of UAS. One question concerned the use of force outside an armed conflict. As the Government have stated previously, there is no policy on the use of force outside an armed conflict: rather, they have a policy to defend the UK and its citizens against both armed attacks and imminent threats of armed attack.

The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, raised a number of important points. On the matter of a definition of “autonomous weapons”, there is an ongoing international discussion and the technology is developing fast. The debate is insufficiently mature to conclude a definition. We therefore rely on the clear parameters of international humanitarian law to ensure legality, whatever weapon or weapons system is used.

I have run out of time. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, raised a number of other points and I undertake to respond to him in writing. I thank your Lordships for what I consider to have been a very important and useful debate. The UK will continue to support a nation’s right to self-defence and we will continue to uphold international law.