The UK's chance to lead by example on drones and targeted killing

“The UK government has a real opportunity to promote a normative regime for the governance of armed drones in line with generally accepted understandings of international law and ethics globally.”


With Eye in the Sky sitting comfortably at number three in the UK box office, the issue of when and how the UK government should use armed military drones seems fixed as a matter of concern for the British public. While elements of the film reach beyond contemporary drone warfare, the legal, ethical, and political questions Director Gavin Hood asks, and intelligently leaves unanswered, are very much a reality for policymakers and international security practitioners. The RAF drone strike on 21 August 2015 which killed Reyaad Khan in Syria, and the subsequent ambiguity regarding the legal basis on which the strike was conducted, brought this into sharp relief. Speculation that this ‘new departure’, as David Cameron described it in September 2015, marked the beginning of a UK targeted killing policy for counter-terrorism outside recognized war zones quickly spread. This elicited fears that a dangerously permissive transatlantic consensus may be emerging.

The UK Position

A report published on Tuesday by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has underlined the ‘urgent need’ for clarity, expressing concern at the ‘confused and confusing’ justifications presented by the government following the August strike. Despite Defence Secretary Michael Fallon’s MP statement that, unlike the US, ‘the UK does not have a policy of targeted killing,’ the report highlights that the government’s position ‘does contemplate the possibility of pre-identified individuals being killed by the State to prevent a terrorist attack’ outside a pre-existing armed conflict.

The committee’s findings echo those of the 2014 Birmingham Policy Commission on the Security Impact of Drones, which prompted Parliamentary calls for clear policy ‘articulating the UK position on application of international human rights and humanitarian law in complex conflicts’ and protecting UK personnel from inadvertent involvement in US targeted killing operations.

Leaders in a new international consensus?

Harriet Harman, chair of the JCHR, issued a statement accompanying the report stressing that the government must take an international lead by providing ‘crystal clear’ legal bases and guidance for any actions which could be seen to subvert accepted interpretations of international human rights or humanitarian law. As US justifications for its use of drones for targeted killing stretch concepts such as enemy combatant, imminent threat and armed conflict to breaking point, the UK government has an opportunity to nurture common understanding amongst European states, and lead by example in promoting the rule of law internationally.

Research suggests comprehensive clarification of a distinct UK position could have broader implications for a European consensus on the use of drones for targeted killing. The research focuses on securing a restrictive normative consensus amongst European states, in particular those with, or who may soon acquire, armed drones (UK, France, Germany, and Italy). So far, however, the project has found a shortage of explicit, clear, public statements on the permissibility of various roles states can play in targeted killing operations. This ranges from intelligence provision to unilateral instigation of strikes, from European governments. Worryingly, this policy of silence from European states could be taken as acquiescence of the ‘soft admixture’ of distinct ethical-legal frameworks used by the US to justify its targeted killing operations. A distinct restrictive European position could serve as a vital counterpoint to the permissive US rulebook and, in the longer term, the basis for a new transatlantic consensus. The UK government, if it acts upon the recommendations of the JCHR report, has a real opportunity to shape such a position, and promote a normative regime for the governance of armed drones in line with generally accepted understandings of international law and ethics globally. Equally importantly, a clear UK position could also address the worries of anyone who has sat through Eye in the Sky hoping that, in real life, decisions about the life and death of terrorists and civilians are governed by clear, comprehensive rules and procedures.

George May is a Research Associate with the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security. He works on the ESRC funded project 'The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles on Conflict and Cooperation Within and Between States' – specifically investigating terrorism, counter-terrorism and drone use in Yemen – and an Open Society Foundation funded project exploring the potential of a transatlantic normative consensus on drone use. He is also a prospective doctoral researcher with the National University of Singapore with broader research interests including international security, the Asia Pacific, and sociological approaches to the study of IR practice.

Research into this area by the Institute of Conflict Cooperation and Security is supported by a grant from the Foundation Open Society Institute in cooperation with the Human Rights Initiative of the Open Society Foundations.