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 $23m 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
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
“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?”