More Killer Drones in More Dangerous Places — The U.K. Robot War Is Expanding
London widens justifications for unmanned strikes
by BEN SULLIVAN
The United Kingdom has sought to clarify its position on drone strikes in an unprecedented speech held by the U.K. government’s attorney general Jeremy Wright.
“It cannot be right that a state is prevented from meeting its first duty of protecting its citizens without nailing down the specific target and timing of an attack,” Wright said at the International Institute for Strategic Studies on Jan. 11, 2017.
In other words, the U.K. government doesn’t think it’s necessary to confirm a clear victim, location, or time of a terror attack before launching an anticipatory strike against the perpetrators by drones or manned aircraft.
To that end, the British government appears to be preemptively widening its remit for Royal Air Force attacks on jihadists and other non-state actors, allowing itself to legally kill people who might not pose an imminent, direct threat to U.K. citizens.
The United Kingdom continued to launch Reaper drone strikes against Islamic State militants throughout 2016. According to watchdog organization Drone Wars U.K., the RAF has conducted more than 1,000 Reaper missions over Iraq and Syria since September 2014.
In December 2016, Britain’s defense secretary Michael Fallon announced the United Kingdom would double its Reaper drone fleet from 10 aircraft to 20 by 2021 as part of a $127-million deal with U.S. firm General Atomics.
Test flights of the new “Protector” drones are expected to begin in 2019.
Lucy Powell, a member of parliament and part of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones, said that the attorney general’s speech is a “welcome step” toward transparency.
“However, in claiming that specific evidence of an attack is not required before lethal force may be used, the government risks lowering the threshold for military action — and appears to be paving the way for more drone strikes abroad without the prior consent of parliament,” Powell said.
But Wright insisted the government has not “watered down” the threshold for military force. “I am certainly not suggesting we adopt an analysis which amounts to a global-war-on-terror paradigm,” he said. “It is absolutely not the position of the U.K. government that armed force may be used to prevent a threat from materializing in the first place.”
Chris Cole, who runs Drone Wars U.K., said that Wright’s speech didn’t mark a specific policy change, but did amount to “setting out [a] legal case as [the] government sees it on [a] particular aspect of the debate — around how imminent a threat needs to be before preemptive action can take place.”
Jack Serle, a journalist working on the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Covert Drone War team, said that while the obvious conclusion from Wright’s speech is an increase in U.K. drone operations, the United Kingdom doesn’t actually have the capacity for more operations. “The Reaper force is working hard in Iraq and Syria,” Serle said. “The new Reapers — renamed Protectors for the RAF — won’t be in action for years yet.”
According to Serle, while the U.K. policy that Wright outlined does share some similarities with U.S. policy, it has much more to do with the United Kingdom “trying to articulate, in law, how it intends to respond with force to the threat of such brutal attacks that have hit European cities in recent years.”
The United Kingdom currently abides by the concept of “threat imminence” when it comes to launching drone strikes. “Like many other states, the long-standing U.K. view is that Article 51 of the U.N. charter does not require a state passively to await an attack,” Wright explained, “but includes the ‘inherent right’ — as it’s described in Article 51 — to use force in self-defense against an imminent armed attack, referring back to customary international law.”
As such, the nature and immediacy of a threat to U.K. citizens helps to build the case for a drone strike. But Wright argued that in the era of evolving terror threats, mixed with the use of social media and technology, the government “must be sure the law is keeping up.”
“Now, an individual so inclined can watch a video on YouTube, source an instruction manual on homemade explosives on the dark web and act on whatever misconceived ideology they have absorbed, all in a short space of time, without traveling abroad and without direct communication with any established organizational leadership,” Wright pointed out.
This, as the U.K. government sees it, justifies altering the calculus for determining when an attack against the United Kingdom may be imminent.
Wright referred to a 2012 report by Sir Daniel Bethlehem, a former legal adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The report, published in the American Journal of International Law, proposed a list of factors —
- The nature and immediacy of the threat
- The probability of an attack
- Whether the anticipated attack is part of a concerted pattern of continuing armed activity
- The likely scale of the attack and the injury, loss or damage likely to result therefrom in the absence of mitigating action
- The likelihood that there will be other opportunities to undertake effective action in self-defense that may be expected to cause less serious collateral injury, loss or damage
“It is my view, and that of the U.K. Government, that these are the right factors to consider in asking whether or not an armed attack by non-state actors is imminent and the U.K. government follows and endorses that approach,” Wright said.
In adopting this revised definition of imminence, Wright subtly revealed that the United Kingdom will assume a slightly more U.S.-like approach to targeted killing — as well as give a green light to drone ops in more places.
“A number of states have also confirmed their view that self-defense is available as a legal basis where the state from whose territory the actual or imminent armed attack emanates is unable or unwilling to prevent the attack or is not in effective control of the relevant part of its territory,” Wright said.
In other words, the United Kingdom’s drone war could expand … and get a lot more deadly.
Originally published at Vice Motherboard.