APPG Inquiry into the Use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners

The Use of Armed Drones: Working with Partners

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The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones has now completed its independent, two year Inquiry, ‘The UK’s use of armed drones: Working with partners’. The Inquiry was chaired and led by Professor Michael Clarke, former Director General of RUSI, with Professor Dapo Akande, Co-Director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict (ELAC), acting as legal advisor.

Please find the full report here.

The aim of the Inquiry was to analyse the emerging technologies of drones, the ways in which the UK works with allies with regard to the use of armed drones, and make recommendations to ensure an appropriate level of transparency and accountability for these operations in Parliament.

It built on the Joint Committee on Human Rights report on ‘The Government’s policy on the use of drones for targeted killing’, which has cast doubt on the legal basis, procedure and oversight for both the UK’s own drones policy and the UK’s support for the United States’ covert drone programme – which is now in the hands of President Trump.

The Group’s new cross-party report shines a light on the risky ways that UK drone partnerships are being run. The APPG on Drones Inquiry was told how British support and intelligence may have enabled targeted killings by the US in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan – countries where the UK isn’t at war.

This comes with great risks as UK actions may violate domestic and international law. In the absence of any clear legal basis or stated public policy for this assistance, UK drones policy is running the risk of flying into danger – both in terms of civilian harm, and by opening military personnel up to criminal prosecution.

Parliament is mandated to hold military policy and practice to account, but that role is being undermined. With no requirement to inform Parliament about its partner activities – let alone any appropriate oversight – there is a danger that the UK is complicit in unlawful conduct carried out by its partners. To address this, this new Inquiry report makes 19 recommendations to guarantee a solid foundation for UK drone policy and operations moving forward.

The inquiry panel received 17 written evidence submissions, and conducted the following oral evidence sessions:

  • Evidence session 1: Military and operational issues (open session, General Sir Richard Barrons – former Commander Joint Forces Command, Air Marshal Greg Bagwell, Air Marshal Iain McNicoll)
  • Evidence session 2: Issues underlying surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence sharing, and involvement in the US drone programme (open session, Namir Shabibi – investigator, Jennifer Gibson – Reprieve, Eric King – Queen Mary, University of London)
  • Evidence session 3: Discussion around the ethical, strategic and legal issues around targeting, and civilian protection (open session, Dr. Larry Lewis – author of President Obama’s presidential policy guidance, and Chris Woods – AirWars). 

  • Evidence Session 4: The UK’s security and defence alliances (closed session, former National Security Advisor, Sir Mark Lyall Grant)

  • Evidence Session 5: The emerging technology relevant to unmanned weapons systems (open session, Dr. Tom Simpson – University of Oxford, Prof. Stuart Russell – University of California, Berkeley)

  • Evidence Session 6: International and domestic legal frameworks relevant to the use of armed drones (open session, Dr. Marko Milanovic – University of Nottingham School of Law, Prof. Nils Melzer – UN Special Rapporteur on Torture)

As military drones rapidly proliferate and robotics, autonomous and artificial intelligence technologies change the nature of weaponry and warfare, the creation of a global legal framework is now essential. The UK’s experience with drones and reputation for good practice provides an unique opportunity to lead this effort.

As the bulwark of scrutiny and bastion of accountability of Government policy and practice, Parliamentarians play a pivotal role in this arena. Their constitutional responsibility requires them to call for – and help shape – considered policy, clear legal precedents and adequate scrutiny mechanisms.  These are essential if the UK is to have a solid foundation for its drone operations with its allies going forward. We therefore look forward to working with Parliamentarians, Government and civil society in taking these recommendations forward, and working with all interested parties to implement them in the months and ahead.