THE UK Government has been urged to make an urgent statement after an official defence document declared that lethal drone strikes had been used to kill terror suspects outside warzones.
Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials published a report which claimed that the UK has a “practice” of using remotely-piloted aircraft to target terrorists outwith armed conflicts.
However, when the inflammatory claim was brought to the MoD’s attention by SNP MP Stewart McDonald, officials then deleted the section and described its inclusion as a mistake.
The backtracking has led to fears that the Government risks a US-style policy of using drone attacks wherever it wants across the globe.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as a drones, operate without a human pilot aboard and are used in conflicts throughout the world. Armed with missiles, they have been deployed in Syria and Iraq to kill senior figures in Isis, including British-born individuals suspected of joining the terror group.
However, there are major human rights concerns about drones, with critics arguing that innocent people have been killed by the strikes and that the defence strategy amounts to the death penalty without trial.
A key part of the controversy in the UK is whether drones have been restricted to warzones, or, more controversially, outside armed conflicts. Critics fear that conducting drone attacks outside conflict areas could lead to the type of “targeted killings” approach adopted by the US in Pakistan and Yemen.
In August 2015, British jihadi Reyaad Khan was killed by an RAF drone strike in Syria after he appeared in a recruitment video for Isis/Daesh. Khan was believed to be involved in plotting and directing terrorist attacks in the UK.
However, when the attack took place military action against targets in Syria had not then been authorised by the UK Parliament. David Cameron, who was Prime Minister at the time, said the intervention had been part of the Government’s counter-terrorism strategy.
A Joint Committee on Human Rights, comprised of peers and MPs, considered the attack and its broader implications.
The committee concluded: “We accept that the drone strike in Syria was part of that wider armed conflict in which the UK was already engaged, to which the Law of War applies, and that the Government therefore did not use lethal force outside of armed conflict when it targeted and killed Reyaad Khan on 21 August.”
In September, the MoD published its “Joint Doctrine” on unmanned aircraft, an 84-page document which covered “issues raised” by the widespread adoption of the aircraft, as well as legal, moral and ethical issues. It stated that arguments against using the aircraft are centred on “worries that systems will be misused, or used illegally”.
However, in a little-read section that could have huge consequences, the document added: “They may also arise from the recent UK, and other states, practice of targeting suspected terrorists outside of the armed conflict itself and the meaning and application of a state’s right to self defence.”
SNP defence spokesman McDonald spotted the line on the UK Government having a “practice” of targeting terror suspects “outside of the armed conflict itself”.
In a letter to new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson on December 11, he wrote: “Is the Government now acknowledging that it has applied lethal force against terror suspects outside of armed conflict and/or has a policy on this matter?”
After the letter was sent, a new version of the document was uploaded on the MoD website on December 22. The sentence had vanished.
Instead, the new doctrine stated: “Such concerns are not unique to UAS [drones and the ground-based communications systems], and the use of armed force – whether delivered by manned or unmanned systems – will always be consistent with the UK’s national and international legal rights and obligations.”
An examination of the PDF reveals the new version of the drones document was created on December 11 – the day on which McDonald wrote to the MOD – and the last edit was eight days later.
In his response last month, Williamson’s colleague, Armed Forces Minister Mark Lancaster, said: “You raise a sentence on page 39 of the document that misleadingly suggests that the UK Government applies a policy of using lethal force outside armed conflict. Let me reassure you that there is no such policy, and that the erroneous drafting was removed from the document at the start of December.”
However, the Government response denied applying a “policy” on lethal force outside armed conflict, when in fact the original document referred to a “practice”.
McDonald, who represents Glasgow South for the SNP, said: “The Government has always been mysteriously vague about the use of drones outside of a warzone, so I was amazed to see its policy document refer to a practice of doing so – and that is why I sought clarification on what the practice is and how it is legally overseen.
“My suspicions were raised further when the Government then removed the document from the MoD website, after receiving my letter, and then reproduced it the day after Parliament stopped for Christmas recess with that crucial sentence removed.
“A document of this nature will have gone through an incredible amount of vetting and redrafting, and will presumably have been cleared by senior officials, legal experts and ministers to ensure accuracy and accordance with the law, before it is put into the public domain. To claim that this was just an erroneous drafting error just won’t cut it.”
He added: “The Government must assure Parliament and the public that it is acting in accordance with the law and attempts to brush this off are not good enough.”
Oliver Feeley-Sprague, Amnesty International UK’s Arms Control Programme Director, said: “Although this may be a case of ministers getting the original text wrong, it does act as a reminder that there are serious concerns over how the UK uses drones overseas.
“We’ve long been concerned that the UK Government has been less than transparent over how and when drones are used to kill.”
He added: “In recent months, UK Government ministers have made a series of worryingly gung-ho remarks about ‘eliminating’ people with such attacks – yet we still have very little information about the legal basis for drone attacks, the oversight measures in place for attacks, or the processes for monitoring civilian casualties.
“Nobody would question the seriousness of the security threats the UK faces, nor of the need for the UK Government to respond to those threats, but that shouldn’t mean the UK is operating outside of the law in places like Iraq and Syria.”
Jen Gibson of Reprieve, a leading human rights group, said: “The public has a right to know the Government’s policy on taking lethal strikes in our name. And our armed forces deserve the protection of greater legal clarity and guidance.”
Gibson, who heads the charity’s Extrajudicial Killings team, team, said: “The Government appears to be in complete chaos over this. We had the Defence Secretary vowing to hunt people down anywhere. Then we had a long overdue, official document saying the Government have a ‘practice’ of killing people outside of armed conflict zones. And now we have a minister claiming there is no policy at all and their own document was ‘misleading’.
“Unless Government publishes its policy, we risk being dragged on President Trump’s coattails into unending conflicts around the world, from Yemen to Niger.”
Asked whether the MoD had admitted to a “practice” of using drones to kill terror suspects outside of armed conflicts, a spokesman said Lancaster’s letter “reflects” the department’s position.