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Armed Drones

December 1, 2015

Mark made the following contribution to a Westminster Hall debate yesterday on drones, led by David Davis MP.

Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) for securing the debate. As ever, he made a thoughtful and insightful contribution. He is also a man of boundless optimism—after all, he suggested that we would hear from the Chilcot inquiry “shortly”.
Unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have undoubtedly proved devastatingly effective. Militarily, as my right hon. Friend pointed out, their use has assisted in expelling al-Qaeda from large tracts of Pakistan—albeit not without some cost, and I agree precisely with what he and General McChrystal had to say—and from Yemen. Politically, drones have allowed the US in particular to pursue strategic objectives without needing to put boots on the ground in an era when, as we all know, there is very little appetite among western electorates for their countries to engage in further overseas military adventures.

Without doubt, the development of drone technology will continue apace in the years ahead. Drones will assuredly be an essential part of the furniture of international warfare and, as a consequence, their use will require a thorough overhaul of international law and regulation. That overhaul is still to come.

In the euphoria that surrounds the decisive deployment of drones to eliminate terrorist leaders from afar, it is also worth reflecting—as the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) did earlier—that before the world is too much older our enemies will also enjoy access to this technology, with potentially calamitous effect. Terrorists and even criminal extortion gangs will soon be able to operate hardware of this sort, the cost and capability of which is rapidly coming within their range.

The use of drones by the UK military was first avowed as recently as September, when the Prime Minister announced the extrajudicial killings of two UK citizens, Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain, who had joined ISIL in Syria and featured prominently in a propaganda video that promoted and encouraged terrorist attacks on UK soil. Of course, the UK Government wished to place those deaths on the record lest details seeped out via a freedom of information inquiry, as happened in July regarding joint US-UK air strikes over Syrian airspace. Moreover, the US policy of routine avowal of fatal drone attacks created the risk that eagle-eyed observers might notice that the two operations resulting in the deaths of Khan and Hussain had not been similarly gazetted. It is better to take the initiative rather than allow lurid conclusions to be drawn. In November, Mohammed Emwazi—alias “Jihadi John”—was similarly dispatched in co-operation with the US military.

For as long as such ISIL-supporting British terrorists were at large on Syrian soil, it would evidently have been impossible to bring them to trial. To be fair, there is a distinction between the situation today and that in Ulster some 40 years ago. Of course there were ungoverned spaces in parts of Londonderry and Belfast, but there are massive tracts within Syria that make it impossible to bring people to trial. None the less, their terrorist activity was designed to cause mayhem on UK soil. We are de facto at war with the so-called Islamic State, and as a consequence Khan and Hussain might properly be regarded as combatants. However, the strong inclination in the post-Iraq war era to provide watertight legal cover for all military operations led, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden said, to the drone raid being classed as “self-defence” under article 51 of the UN charter.

That has opened up a series of contentious issues. For example, were the primary subjects of the drone attack “directing an attack”, and was such an attack “imminent”? As a consequence, our intelligence agencies will need to show after each drone strike that they have carefully considered the operation of article 51, unless we have the change in law that I will come on to. We need to keep the terms of such drone operations under regular, if not constant, review.

Mr David Davis: My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. One of the difficulties with such a legal basis is the requirement of imminence, which gives us an evidential problem. Presumably there was some sort of terrorist cell in this country that was about to carry out a terrorist action, and the Government have failed or refused to answer questions about whether there have been any arrests in the follow-up to that strike. That gives us a problem. The Government may have good reason for not giving us the information, but when drone strikes are carried out they will have to be ready to provide an evidential chain of some sort to show that what they did was correct.

Mark Field: I very much agree with my right hon. Friend’s comments. It seems to me that we need to keep the terms of drone use under regular, if not constant, review, and that before seeking ministerial authorisation the intelligence agencies would have needed to conclude that the individuals posed an imminent and clear threat to national security. It is also essential that our security services satisfy themselves that a drone strike, rather than any attempt at apprehension, is both necessary and proportionate. The issue of collateral damage—the impact of a strike upon innocent civilians in the vicinity—has been incredibly controversial, especially in Pakistan and Yemen, where it has often been recognised that US strikes have necessitated discreet co-operation with host Governments.

In truth, the increasingly sophisticated monitoring of mobile phones, other telephony and emails has enhanced the ability to target suspects with virtually pinpoint accuracy—it was notable that the only other fatalities in the two UK strikes this summer were associates. That is a good thing; we should try as far as possible to minimise collateral damage.

Nevertheless, I agree with other contributors to the debate that there is now an urgent, and possibly unanswerable, case for updated legislation to govern the use of—not to mention the continued reliance upon—new drone technology. That would allow the Prime Minister and the Government of the day to act with the timing and precision required to wage effective operations, without first having to consider how to navigate the complex labyrinth of precedent, law and parliamentary approval that currently blunts us. The US War Powers Act goes some way to providing a template in that regard, bestowing on the Executive branch the ability to give the green light to action without congressional approval, while maintaining a series of vital checks, safeguards and balances.

It is worth recalling that US legal justification in relation to the use of drones on overseas targets has historically been markedly less strenuous. That has arguably caused difficulties in the ungoverned parts of the world where “Five Eyes” co-operation is often strongest—Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and, more recently, parts of Syria. The UK security services’ knowledge that intelligence passed to their US counterparts is used to launch drone strikes without, for example, any clear imminent threat to national security, potentially places the UK military, and our own workers, in a legal quagmire.

Although a common protocol among western allies would be ideal, that would necessitate an open political debate about the desirability of adopting the hit list approach that the US military have for selecting drone targets. For the Obama Administration, that approach has essentially involved a rolling update of named individuals, with the list being refreshed whenever there is a successful drone attack involving the assassination of terrorist targets. Needless to say, such an approach is far removed from the necessity for the prior legal approval of each and every step under British law as it currently stands.

Thank you, Mr Stringer, for allowing me to speak for rather longer than my requisite minutes, but I did take some interventions. I very much look forward to the Minister’s response to the debate, and to her recognising that we need new legislation and some genuine thought about the matter, not just in the context of what is happening in Syria but, I suspect, for many years to come.