The government has dismissed MPs’ concerns about British use of armed drones, and said it plans to expand their deployment while redoubling efforts to “promote” them to the public and MPs.
Having been censured by the Defence Committee in June for ignoring concerns it first raised in March, the government today (29 July) responded to its call for “greater transparency in relation to safeguards and limitations” for UK intelligence-sharing. The committee had made reference to claims made by the legal charity Reprieve, which assists the civilian victims of drone strikes, that the sharing of intelligence with the CIA’s covert drone programme was leading to British complicity in extrajudicial killings.
Ministers today confirmed that the government investigated “any incident in which a civilian has been or appears to have been killed by UK forces”, but failed to respond to claims about a lack of public scrutiny. Instead, they said, there was a need to “promote a better understanding” about the UK’s use of drones among the public, press and MPs.
The government declined to respond in detail to the committee’s request that “a clear distinction be drawn between the actions of UK Armed Forces operating remotely piloted air systems in Afghanistan and those of other States elsewhere” – an apparent reference to UK involvement in the US’ controversial drone programme, which has claimed thousands of lives outside of declared warzones in countries including Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.
Responding to the committee’s endorsement of UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson’s call for an international consensus on the legality of the use of armed drones, the government said it believed its use of the weapons was covered by existing international law. The Special Rapporteur has asked governments, including the UK, to answer fifteen questions in order to clarify their legal position on the use of the weapons, but to date, the UK government has declined to do so.
Responding, Kat Craig, legal director at Reprieve, which assists the civilian victims of drone strikes, said: “Rather than launching a PR offensive for its drone wars, ministers would do better to give the public some answers on the issues that matter – is the UK government responsible, partly or wholly, for illegal drone attacks, and do ministers have civilian blood on their hands? The defence committee must hold its nerve and call for the UK to support an international treaty regulating the use of drones.”