UK Must “Do More” to Distance Itself from US Drone Programme, Says Ex-GCHQ Chief’s Report

A report from a commission chaired by the former Director of GCHQ has called on the British Government to implement “safeguards” to ensure that UK drone personnel “remain compliant with international law.”

Citing the “sinister cultural and political salience” of US drone operations, the commission – which is chaired by Sir David Omand and was initiated by the University of Birmingham – recommends that measures be taken to ensure that where intelligence is shared with the US, “the UK government does not inadvertently collude in RPA [drone] actions contrary to international law.”

The report – produced by the Birmingham Policy Commission on the Security Impact of Drones – states that “the UK simply does not accept the specific US legal justification for using RPA [drones] for the targeted killing of AQ-related terrorist targets.” As a result, it warns that where UK forces are embedded with the US military, or where the US is making use of UK drones, “assurances need to be maintained that their use is in accordance with UK legal guidelines.”

As well as Sir David, the commission’s membership includes Sir Brian Burridge, former Commander-in-Chief of Strike Command in the Royal Air Force, and Sir Paul Newton, a retired Lieutenant General in the British Army who served in the Iraq War.

Among the commission’s key recommendations are the following:

  • “In situations where UK forces are embedded with US or other forces, the UK government should do more by way of reassurance to explain the safeguards which are in place to ensure that embedded personnel remain compliant with international humanitarian law.
  • “If allied forces use UK RPA, assurances should be obtained that their use is in accordance with UK legal guidelines.
  • “The government should confirm that guidance has been issued to staff, and safeguards put in place, to ensure that in sharing intelligence with the US government and military, the UK government does not inadvertently collude in RPA or other counter-terrorist actions contrary to international law.
  • “Following casualties caused by armed RPA, the outcome of the government’s fact-finding investigations should be made public, except where operational considerations preclude this. In such situations, the government should at a minimum explain its decision.”

Commenting, Jennifer Gibson, a staff attorney at legal charity Reprieve who also sat on the Birmingham commission, said: “When figures such as the former head of GCHQ are suggesting Britain needs to distance itself from the US drone programme, the UK Government must listen. There can no longer be any doubt that covert US drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen contravene international law. As long as the UK continues to support this programme – through the sharing of intelligence, air bases and personnel – it is complicit in these illegal drone strikes carried out by the CIA. British ministers must now come clean on how far this involvement has gone, and publicly disclose the safeguards that are in place to ensure it is not allowed to continue.”