The British Government recently replied to an inquiry by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) on the British policy on the use of drones for targeted killings. It called upon the government to respond with its legal position on drone strikes executed outside war zones, claiming that the British drone policy is "confused and confusing". The government responded to the JCHR's 114-page drone report with only 10 pages. The response claims that "high level answers have been given to the Committee's questions, many of the questions are hypothetical ... and the answers should not be taken as representing the government's detailed and developed thinking on these complex issues." But the response was not satisfactory from a human rights lens, and the public has a right to know when a British Citizen can and is executed.
The government has "ducked" one of the most important legal questions in the JCHR report:
"In our view, the Secretary of State's position that the Law of War applies to the use of lethal force abroad outside of armed conflict, and that compliance with the Law of War satisfies any obligations which apply under human rights law, is based on a misunderstanding of the legal frameworks that apply outside of armed conflict. ... Outside of armed conflict, however, the conventional view, up to now, has been that the Law of War, by definition, does not apply. We recommend that the Government, in its response to our Report, clarifies its position as to the law which applies when it uses lethal force outside of armed conflict."
The government four months later said, "this is a hypothetical question and if this scenario arose as a live issue it would require detailed analysis of the law and all the facts. However, the government considers that in relation to military operations, the law of war would be likely to be regarded as an important source in considering the applicable principles." The Parliamentary Committee is "disappointed that the government has refused to clarify its position in relation to the use of lethal force outside war zones on the basis that this is "hypothetical".
Let's be clear, the law of war does not apply outside warzones, and such a situation is certainly not a "hypothetical question" as put by the government. British drone strikes or acquiescence of US strikes has killed 14 British nationals already, and the numbers are increasing as investigations continue. In addition, with state agencies using and building the British Kill List which has been in operation for over a decade, it's important to realise that drone strikes - and other targeted killing methods - are a "live issue" across Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and other places.
The British public should be concerned with the legality of taking life, the rule of law and democracy. After all, the drone strikes are taking place in our name. The JCHR's report triggered an opportunity for the British government to clarify its drone policy beyond war zones, and its legality. Yet we are still itching to hear "detailed and developed thinking" of the British interpretation of imminence on the use of force in self defence against potential attacks; the legal basis for acquiescing US strikes beyond war zones and the applicability of the Right to Life (Article 2) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The government holds the view that it can execute drone targeted killings "even if there is no specific evidence of where such an attack will take place or of the precise nature of the attack". This directly conflicts with customary international law on imminent threat, and copies the US position according to a leaked Department of Justice White Paper that it "does not require... clear evidence that a specific attack will take place in the immediate future". The US drone strike practice has already taken hundreds of civilian casualties without any accountability, and it appears Britain is following in its path.
The policy as it stands "may expose ... ministers to the risk of criminal prosecution for murder or complicity in murder," says the report. Parliament, the public and state agencies involved in drone strikes need to know whether the government is complying with the international law and to provide absolute clarity for all those involved in the chain of command for counter-terrorism strikes - MI5, MI6, armed forces, officers and ministers and others. With at least 14 British nationals killed around the globe and counting, it's very much a "live" situation and not a "hypothetical" one. It is only a matter of time for possible future criminal proceedings for all of those involved in the chain of command for drone strikes.