The legal charity Reprieve has threatened legal action against the British government over its failure to investigate the role of UK telecoms giant BT in facilitating covert US drone strikes in Yemen.
BT has earned an estimated $23 million from a US government contract to supply key communications infrastructure between RAF Croughton – a US military base in Northamptonshire – and Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the secret base from which armed drones reportedly carry out lethal strikes in Yemen. According to the US military, American forces stationed at RAF Croughton provide “global strike operations.”
Legal investigations have begun on behalf of Mohammed al-Qawli, a Yemeni civil servant who lost his brother, a primary school teacher, and cousin, a 20-year-old student, in a drone strike in January 2013. They follow a July 2013 complaint by Reprieve to the UK government watchdog, the National Contact Point (NCP) for the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) Guidelines. That complaint was rejected after the NCP said it had no duty to “conduct research or interrogate” BT.
Mr al-Qawli recently described the moments after he was told about the strike: “I went to the site of the strike, some 20 minutes away, to find the car still burning and people from the nearby village gathered around it. The smell of burning flesh was overwhelming. We had to go to a nearby village to get water to put the fire out and we had to collect the body parts ourselves. The memory remains etched in my mind and haunts me to this day.”
Lord Livingston, who was Chief Executive of BT at the time the complaint was launched, is now Minister of State at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), where the NCP sits. Secretary of State for BIS Vince Cable has told Reprieve that Livingston “has overall responsibility” for the NCP.
The US’ secret drone programme is carried out by the CIA and US Joint Special Operations Command in countries with which the US is not at war, and has killed hundreds of civilians in Yemen and Pakistan. After the strike that killed Mr al-Qawli’s relatives, the Yemeni government admitted that both men were innocent civilians.
Kat Craig, Legal Director of Reprieve, said: “Human rights abuses may happen at the hands of governments, but corporations’ fingerprints are too often found at the scene. The OECD guidelines are a recognition of the role corporations play. They should be at their strongest at the intersection of the murky world of business and the secretive and covert drone programme.
“But this case shows that the regulator of these guidelines is toothless and that the guidelines themselves are meaningless. The drone strike that killed an innocent primary school teacher in a country with whom we are not at war may not have been possible but for the assistance of big business. If one of the most recognised British companies has blood on its hands, don’t we deserve to know?”