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UK policy on use of drones for targeted killing inquiry

29 October 2015

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, chaired by Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, announced an inquiry into the UK Government's policy on the use of drones for targeted killing.

Use of drones "a new departure" according to PM

The Prime Minister's statement to the House of Commons on 7 September, concerning a drone strike in Raqqa, Syria on 21 August which killed three people, including two British citizens, indicates a very significant change of the UK Government's policy on the use of drones for targeted killing.  The Prime Minister himself described it as "a new departure": "the first time in modern times that a British asset has been used to conduct a strike in a country where we are not involved in a war". 

The UK has previously used drones to deliver lethal strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the Government's policy was to do so only in countries where the UK was involved in an international armed conflict.  In September 2014, Parliament authorised military operations in Iraq, but not Syria.

The Government's explanations of the rationale for its actions on 21 August raise a number of important questions about the change of policy, which was not the subject of any prior scrutiny or debate in Parliament.  The Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary, the Attorney General, the Foreign Secretary and the UK's Permanent Representative to the UN have all provided explanations which differ in some important respects and raise significant questions about what the Government's policy now is and its legal basis.

Policy of drone use unclear

The Government has not published any formulated policy on the use of drones for targeted killing.  As a result there is a lack of clarity about the policy; about whether and how the legal frameworks of international humanitarian law, international human rights law and ordinary criminal law apply; and about the relevant legal tests and principles that apply to the use of lethal force in such circumstances. 

It is not clear how the relevant decision-makers test the sufficiency of evidence, who checks that the tests are satisfied, and what the framework of accountability is.  The uncertainty not only makes accountability difficult, it potentially exposes front line personnel to criminal liability for the unlawful use of lethal force.

Get involved

The Joint Committee on Human Rights welcomes written submissions on any aspects of its inquiry. Deadline for submission is Friday 13 November 2015. The Committee particularly welcomes submissions on the following themes:

  • clarification of the Government's policy and its legal basis
  • the decision-making process that precedes the Government's use of drones for targeted killing, including the safeguards to ensure the sufficiency of evidence
  • accountability for actions taken pursuant to the policy (what independent checks exist before and/or after a strike; should there be independent scrutiny and, if so, who should carry it out?)

Send a written submission via UK Government policy on use of drones for targeted killing inquiry page

Chair's comment

Chair of the Committee Harriet Harman said :

"The Government's policy on the use of drones for targeted killing has significantly changed, but there is no clarity about what that policy is, what legal framework applies, how decisions are taken in practice and what accountability there is for such important decisions about the use of lethal force by the State.

We urgently need clarification, to ensure that the Government's new policy complies with the UK's legal obligations and to provide certainty to our front-line personnel that they are not running the risk of being prosecuted for unlawful killing. The Committee's inquiry will aim to provide that clarification."

Further information

Image: PA