The first legal hearing in Britain is taking place over UK participation in US drone strikes in Pakistan. The case has been brought by a man whose father was killed by a strike from an unmanned aircraft, and he is seeking to have the sharing of UK locational intelligence with US drone controllers declared illegal.
There are good grounds for this. US drones have killed targets in at least 6 countries: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia and Libya. Yet the only one where the US is officially at war is Afghanistan, and therefore it is argued that drone attacks on the other 5 are illegal under US law, and thence any UK participation is colluding with a war crime.
FCO lawyers’ response to this is extremely cagey. They solemnly declare that it would be ‘prejudicial to the national interest’ (thinly veiled code for ‘too embarrassing to tell the truth’) even to explain what they understood to be the legal basis for any such activities! – presumably because there isn’t any.
The UK government’s defence might conceivably be that there is tacit agreement for such strikes from the Parkistani government, but under international law the documentary evidence to justify that claim would have to be provided – and almost certainly cannot be because it does not exist. The US legal position is that drone strikes are acts of self-defence. As a rationale of expediency that really takes some beating.
Aside from highly questionable legality, drone strikes are highly inefficient and the killing of non-combatants, callously translated as ‘collateral damage’, is a high proportion of the death rate. The New America Foundation, a Washington think-tank, estimates that drone strikes in Pakistan have killed some 2,560 persons since 2004, of whom it calculates that 410 were non-militants (16%). The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates slightly higher figures – 2,940 killed, of whom some 670 were civilians, including 176 children.
This new form of deadly warfare is spreading fast. The RAF has just confirmed it is to double the number of UK drones flying both combat and surveillance operations over Afghanistan. These 5 additional aircraft will be operated from Britain for the first time rather than from the US Creach air force base in Nevada.
Instead of GCHQ boasting of their telephone intercepts to pass data to the US drone controllers, this is an area where the application of international law needs to be clarified, and quickly. Maybe the US-UK should reflect that what they can do today, China and Russia will be able to do in the next few years.