Introducing the APPG on Drones and Modern Conflict

Children walking through the ruins of the old marketplaces in Shingal, following the war with the Islamic State. Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash.

Our history

In 2012, the APPG on Drones was set up in response to growing concerns over the use of armed drones and centred on examining their legal, political and human rights impacts as an emerging tool for military operations.

Key concerns centred around the lack of transparency on UK policy and legal positions for its use of drones—both directly and with its partners. These concerns included the overly expansive legal positions that underpinned drone use, chipping away at the established protections for civilians in conflict and blurring the traditional lines between war and peace; and dismay at the rising human cost as civilian casualties from air operations continued to escalate in conflicts across the world.

Since the Group’s inception, the need to stand up for civilians in conflict and ensure accountability of the UK’s use of force has unified all our work. Where the UK is responsible for civilian harm through the use of force, either directly or through its partnerships, or is able to mitigate harm by others – our Group has an interest.

Our new remit: Adapting to an era of changing warfare

Drones, however, do not exist in a vacuum. They are used as one of many tools in an increasingly complex security environment. The nature of warfare is changing, with civilians across the globe continuing to pay the price. Conflicts have become more complex and protracted, occurring in densely populated areas and featuring a multiplicity of actors.  

Simultaneously, we’re seeing a move away from large-scale ground interventions toward an increasingly remote approach that overwhelmingly relies on the use of airstrikes, including through the use of armed drones; wide-area explosive weapons in populated areas; the use of special forces operations and ground raids; and working by, with, and through partners as the primary means of achieving military objectives. These complexities pose particular challenges when it comes to the protection of civilians and have resulted in a devastating rise in civilian casualties and the sweeping destruction of civilian infrastructure. 

The end result is an opaque picture, where details on deployments and partnerships are not required to be reported to Parliament, let alone debated or voted on. These approaches will undoubtedly present new and continued risks to civilians, whilst undermining our ability as Parliamentarians to assess and oversee policy. 

We found that the concerns pertaining to the legality, transparency and accountability of drone use applied across the use of force in this multifaceted landscape. In 2020, this drove us to look more comprehensively at the use of drones in conjunction with other methods of deploying force – including conventional airstrikes, Special Forces operations, and the increasing reliance on partnerships and coalitions.

This broader focus more comprehensively highlights the underlying weaknesses across strategy, process and policy, and highlights the gaps that exist in our current understanding of operations and in Parliament’s ability to meaningfully scrutinise modern deployments. Simultaneously, this focus also illuminates opportunities for creating cohesive strategy and more effective approaches to current security challenges. 

By doing this, we can highlight the gaps in oversight and legal and strategic risks apparent in the UK’s military partnerships – whether with Saudi Arabia, the US, or anyone else – and its own overall military strategies, particularly in terms of countering terrorism. 

Our Aims:

Our three cross-cutting aims are:

  1. Championing the protection of civilians in conflict as a top line priority across government departments; 
  2. Ensuring the rule of law and international-rules based system is adhered to, in spirit and letter, by the UK government;
  3. Strengthening Parliament’s role and ability to scrutinise policy and hold the government to account for UK and partnered operations.

Drawing on the vital lessons from drones, our new remit and aims allow us to bring together previously siloed conversations on international law, military technology and covert operations with existing discussions on conventional operations, strategy and civilian protection.

With the lines between war and peace becoming more blurred, it’s vital that we ensure all types of operations – with any partners – respect the rule of law, are subject to parliamentary scrutiny and  incorporate civilian protection as a strategic priority, with the right information and systems in place to check policy and remedy mistakes. 

To find out more about how we work, see our “about us” page.

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