British military personnel could be prosecuted for killing civilians in drone strikes and risk becoming complicit in alleged war crimes committed by the US, a two-year probe by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones revealed. As well as launching its own strikes, the Ministry of Defence is assisting operations by the US and other allies that could violate both national and international law, it said.
Professor Michael Clarke, chair of the parliamentary drones group, said the UK was working with countries including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Qatar that “do not work on standard Nato rules”.
“As the trend of British personnel being embedded with foreign forces increases there is a danger they will find themselves complicit in drone strikes that are not legal on our terms,” he told The Independent. “If we’re prepared to be a bit lax, which we are, it will get considerably worse as the use of drones proliferates.” Professor Clarke, the former director-general of the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), said any airstrike must be proportionate, with care taken to avoid civilian casualties. “If civilians are going to get killed for a strike that ‘might be helpful’, that’s not good enough,” he added.
The killing of British Isis militants Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin in 2015 followed by the British militant known as Jihadi John, who was killed in an American drone strike supported by UK intelligence, and several other jihadis whose deaths have been revealed by relatives or in domestic terror cases, marked a departure from Britain’s previous practice.
Professor Clarke said the government put forward “weak and inconsistent” legal arguments to justify the operations. “’Arguably lawful’ is just not good enough,” he added. “No one objected because everyone was very glad to see the back of Jihadi John, but behind that the principles being compromised are very important.”
The government says the targeted militants constituted a significant threat to the UK but has not presented any information that would allow MPs or parliamentary committees to make a judgement.
“The current government does not consider parliamentary approval necessary when providing assistance to allies,” it concluded.
“As cooperation is likely to increase in the future, this approach leaves an expanding oversight and accountability gap. Moreover, it leaves UK personnel and ministers vulnerable to criminal liability in allies’ unlawful strikes.”
Because the use of force outside conflicts Britain is directly involved with is not protected by combatant immunity, British servicemen and women can be prosecuted for murder.
“There is growing concern that the UK is likely supporting a drone programme where the US commits unlawful acts,” the report said. “This Inquiry has found that the support provided by the UK constitutes the provision of material assistance to a state that appears to be violating international law.”
American forces operate four bases in the UK, while Britain operates and flies military drones from partner bases around the world.
Britain both shares personnel and intelligence with allies that can be used in the commission of strikes, and its personnel pilot American drones.
The report said the situation was “deeply problematic” because of the lack of oversight, while almost every request for information is “categorically dismissed”.
The government has refused to detail its policy on targeting or the process of launching drone strikes to parliament – or what is defined as a “combatant”.
While American forces have confirmed the death of more than 900 civilians in airstrikes on Isis strongholds in Iraq and Syria since 2014, the UK puts its own total at one after more than 1,700 strikes in those countries, and claimed a single operation caused civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Professor Clarke called the British government’s claims “ridiculous”, adding: “They don’t look for evidence and they don’t try to look for evidence.”