Britain’s Secret Drone Killing Programme
David Cameron’s announcement, despite a total parliamentary ban on any military activity in Syria, that the UK had been deploying RAF bombers in raids ’embedded’ with the Americans for months came something of a shock. Since then, UK military personnel are suspected of having participated in the CIA’s controversial and secretive drone wars, which has resulted in thousands of fatalities.
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) insists that the UK has never conducted its own drone killing flights. However, when pressed, an MoD spokesman said: “UK personnel ’embedded’ with the US air force have only flown remotely piloted aircraft systems in support of operations in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq.” This deliberately vague answer gives rise to suspicion that there are secretive operations, the details of which we are not aware … yet.
When the UK and Pakistan announced last month that they had each carried out lethal drone strikes against their own citizens, they followed a template sketched by Obama over the past seven years – one that also came as a shock to parliament and human rights groups.
While a few other nations, particularly Israel, have conducted drone killing strikes in the past, experts have long warned that the proliferation of drone strikes would be inevitable after the US embraced them so enthusiastically early in Obama’s presidency.
This now appears to be the case for the UK and Pakistan as they have conducted their recent drone strikes in US style: secretive attacks on an undeclared battlefield, rather than as part of an declared war.
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“Those of us who have criticized the Obama administration’s targeted killing policy have long warned that other states cite it to attempt to justify their own legal violations. The concerns were, however, over Russia, China, and North Korea, not the United Kingdom,” said Mary Ellen O’Connell, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame.
David Cameron confirmed that the RAF conducted a drone strike on 21st August that killed two British citizens who had joined the Islamic State (Isis). The strike was taken outside the current US-led coalition targeting Isis in Iraq and Syria, making it an exclusively UK operation, the first of its kind – and obviously at Cameron’s prerogative, not one of debate with parliament.
David Cameron said the circumstances of the killings were “relatively unique”, but in the House of Commons there was a dawning sense that something fundamental had changed.
These were British citizens whose assassinations was ordered by a British prime minister, blown up by an RAF drone in a country with which the UK was not at war. It was, the prime minister conceded, “a new departure”. For the House of Commons, this was an unexpected event. Having lied by omission, members of parliament and British citizens must be wondering what else Britain is doing without debate or legal basis when it comes to killing people in foreign lands.
Jennifer Gibson of human rights group Reprieve, filed a FOI request to find out how involved British forces really are with CIA operations. She said the refusal to confirm whether UK personnel had been involved was troubling. “This refusal suggests that we may be embroiled in the CIA’s secret wars in far greater ways than was thought,”
The Green party’s MP Caroline Lucas and peer Baroness Jones have joined with human rights charity Reprieve and law firm Leigh Day to start the process of a legal challenge over the Government’s “targeted killing” of people in countries where Britain is not at war. And there is good reason for the challenge, not just in terms of the law itself.
Since President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, an estimated 2,464 people have been killed by drone strikes targeted outside of the United States’ declared war zones; this figure was posted in February 2015 by the team at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, who maintain a database of all known strikes—based on fieldwork, media reports, and leaked documents—which provides a clearer picture of the scale and impact of the US drone program than the episodic reporting provided by corporate media.
According to Bureau data, al-Qaeda members comprise only 4 percent of the total 2,379 people killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan as of October 2014, just over ten years after the first such strikes. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported these numbers after conducting a year long investigation that compiled information from various sources to provide an overview of drone strike casualties.
Their findings undermine the validity of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s claim that “the only people we fire a drone at are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest level.” Regardless of whether or not those killed were in fact dangerous, the inability to account for their identities invites skepticism toward US military operations and raises moral concerns about basic respect for human dignity. Exactly the same applies to any operations involving UK MoD drones.
The UK and Pakistani strikes are a reminder that the US president’s foreign policy legacy will stretch far beyond his administration’s self-identified achievements and certainly as far as Cameron is concerned, this leaves Britain in a small club of those involved in aerial extra-judicial assassinations that has an innocent civilian kill-rate of 96 percent.
“The US has already set a troubling precedent by violating international law in many instances through targeted killings; that the UK is now also willing to deliberately kill people outside of an armed conflict, and obfuscate the legal basis behind such killings, simply compounds the problem,” observed Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch.
“The law hasn’t changed, but US allies’ willingness to accept violations of the law may have, and it is a scary world for all of us if rules that govern lethal force can simply be tossed out the window.”
Continuing daily ‘precise’ airstrikes by US, UK and other nations against ISIS targets in Iraq and Syria are currently almost invisible in the news media except for a few stories representing carefully controlled Ministry of Defence press statements.
The UK is also likely to have deployed further Reaper drones into the Middle East but insists that it can’t reveal such information – “For reasons of safeguarding operational security, the Ministry of Defence will not be providing details on the final number of RAF Reaper aircraft deployed to the Middle East from Afghanistan“.
With a number of separate countries undertaking drone airstrikes, operating by different rules of engagement and refusing to give locations and times of strikes, it is almost impossible for relatives of civilians killed in such strikes to report the details or to seek compensation for their loss. They simply experience the devastation and powerless to do anything about it.
The fact that only 25% of airstrikes in Iraq and 5% of airstrikes in Syria are pre-planned, with the vast majority being undertaken by aircraft and drones ‘on the fly’ (i.e. when a ‘target of opportunity’ is spotted) will no doubt impact on the number of civilian casualties killed in this air war.
Whilst the David Cameron and the UK Ministry of Defence have taken no notice of the only known accurate factual statistics, it is worth noting the accuracy of America’s drone killing attacks in Pakistan.
- In Pakistan, 24 men were reported as killed or targeted multiple times. Missed strikes on these men killed 874 people, including 142 children.
- In Yemen, 17 men were reported killed or targeted multiple times. Missile strikes on these men killed 273 others and accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties and 100% of all recorded child deaths.
- In targeting Ayman al Zawahiri, the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults. They failed twice, and Ayman al Zawahiri is reportedly still alive.
- It took the US six attempts to kill Qari Hussain, a Pakistani target. During these attempts, 128 people were killed, including 13 children.
- Each assassination target on the US government’s so-called Kill List ‘died’ on average more than three times before their actual death
The narrative of ‘precision strikes’ alongside the remoteness of the operations and lack of media scrutiny allows us if we do not look too closely to believe that such war is clean, surgical and even humane. It is in fact, none of those things. It is more accurately described as the indiscriminate and unwarranted murders of innocent civilian lives and Britain, of all countries, should not engage in such illegal barbarity.
Graham Vanbergen – TruePublica