The British Government has adopted some of the key principles of the US covert drone programme, a response to MPs published on October 19, 2016, shows.
Responding to questions from the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) on the use of drones for ‘targeted killing’, the Government claims that it should be able to use force in response to threatened attacks “even if there is no specific evidence of where…an attack will take place or of the precise nature of the attack.”
This diverges sharply from customary international law on the issue and matches almost exactly the controversial definition of an “imminent” threat used by the US to justify a covert programme which has resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths for which no one has been held accountable. The US Government has re-defined imminent such that it “does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack …will take place in the immediate future.”
The UK Government also refused to answer a number of questions from the Committee on the legal basis for their use of targeted killings outside warzones – described by David Cameron as a “new departure” to the House of Commons last year – claiming many of the questions about the applicable legal framework were “hypothetical”. Nevertheless, when asked about the legal frameworks that would apply to the use of drones outside of armed conflict, the JCHR noted that the government’s response came close to asserting that “the applicable law follows the choice of means” rather than the law dictating the means used to address the threat.
Ministers did admit for the first time that there is a policy on this issue, but have declined to publish it, saying that while “the Government does not have a ‘policy on targeted killing’ it does have “a policy to defend the UK and its citizens against threats to their security…” which includes the use of drones outside warzones.
Commenting, Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at Reprieve said:
“It now appears as if the UK has followed the US down that slippery-slope of US-style assassination programmes, re-defining key legal terms in a way that potentially turns the whole world into a battlefield and sets dangerous precedents for how other states might act in future.
Ministers cannot claim the situation is ‘hypothetical’ when we already know that it has for years been complicit in the US’s own drone programme, a programme the evidence shows has killed hundreds of civilians, without any form of accountability, yet has failed to make the world a safer place.
“When it comes to drone strikes outside warzones, the Government can’t have its cake and it eat it too. It cannot claim the right to target and kill individuals worldwide, but then refuse to provide even basic answers as to the legal basis for such action. It must provide more. It must answer the very reasonable questions MPs put to then on what their policy — and the legal basis for it — is.
Reprieve is a UK-based human rights organization that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. The organization is online at www.reprieve.org.uk. Reprieve US is based in New York City NY.