Drone Wars

Apologies if the year hasn’t started with any positive news. In order to buck the recent trend, I’ve got some mixed news to bring. The good news is that for the first time in British legal and political history, the United Kingdom’s Attorney General is to set out the legal basis for military strikes against overseas targets. The bad news? TCC is unsure as to the legal reasoning pertaining to the military strikes.

It is a useful starting point to define what a drone is in more precise terms. A drone, rather more scientifically termed as an ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’ (UAV), is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. The flight of a drone may operate with various degrees of autonomy: either under remote control by a human operator or by onboard computers. In other words, a slightly more arduous task than completing ‘Manager Mode’ on FIFA 17 with Accrington Stanley.

Discussion of drone warfare has hit the front pages of British newspapers because the UK Attorney General, Jeremy Wright QC has stated that Britain is legally justified in deploying drone strikes to prevent imminent terrorist attacks. By way of context, the issue of finding a legal basis for drone strikes came to a head in 2015 when swine-enthusiast David Cameron authorised a RAF drone strike in Syria, against ISIS – among the group, two Britons (Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin) were killed.

Now, Jeremy ‘Is Hardly Ever’ Wright insists that such attacks are to be a last resort, especially because its use may result in unavoidable civilian deaths – all well and good saying this from the comfort of your own plush government office, Mr Wright. Mr Wright continues to state that attacking terrorists with drones is legal ‘when there is no other option to defend the country from attack and no other means to detain, disrupt or otherwise prevent those plotting acts of terror’. The question remains whether his approach provides a sound legal basis for authorising such attacks.

Technology is virtuous and harmful equal measure. It is the rapid dissemination of information that has prompted the UK to find a legal basis for drone attacks. It is plain that in this day and age an individual may source a video on the Internet on how to make a homemade explosive, and act on whatever harmful ideology they have been influenced by without even travelling abroad. The message is clear: terror can be conceived of rapidly in one’s mind and therefore the UK must develop a robust defence mechanism.

So, what legal basis is there for justifying drone attacks? The UK provides a strong voice in the international community, and as a result their commitment to international is ‘undimmed’ according to the Attorney General. States typically invoke Article 51, Charter of the United Nations to justify any counter-terror attack. Article 51 permits States with ‘the inherent right of individual or collective self defence’. This is a tact often used by our transatlantic cousins over in the United States: the US used Article 51 to justify the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical American Muslim cleric. Legal guru Joshua Rozenberg argues that these types of attacks appear to be legal because international law, like English law, permits such an attack subject to proving that an armed attack is ‘occurring or imminent’.

However, question marks are to be raised because the use of Article 51 in this way – it is time to think a little less about Counter-Strike on your PC and a little more about counter-terrorism in real life. The threshold of ‘imminence’ is highly subjective and it is therefore entirely conceivable that even a report of an attack with no details of a time or date may be deemed imminent. This would inadvertently water down whatever legal base the Attorney General is relying on because it amounts to an arbitrary standard. Moreover, what this does is shift the UK’s rhetoric to counter-terrorism from one of self-defence to outright warfare because of the sheer breadth of such a provision.

Undoubtedly, in a period where the UK is seeking to reassert its sovereignty in the international sphere, Jeremy is right in line with the status quo. There is a real need for the UK to take control of its defences in a legal manner, in order to ensure our safety. Whilst this is a good start, further clarification is needed on just how the UK is to operationalise any drone attack, given its highly sensitive nature and the risk of serious collateral damage.

By Kamran Khan

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