Thursday, 12 July 2012

UK Drones and Targeted Killing

The targeting of suspected members of terrorist groups with missiles by the United States has been rightly condemned. In the past week the point was made at Methodist Conference and at URC General Assembly that, although terrorists operate outside of the law, it is vital that Governments do not do likewise. (Both forums debated the Baptist, Methodist and URC report on drones).

©2012 iStockphoto LP - alxpin

Drones provide new capabilities enabling track and kill operations such as those carried out by the CIA in northern Pakistan and Yemen. But is this US precedent providing a rationale for track and kill elsewhere? In Afghanistan, for example, should the UK military track and kill insurgents who have been positively identified by military intelligence, eliminating them with missiles even when they are far from the field of battle at the time? What would be the ethical and legal basis for such a policy?

I provide here an RAF report of 3 April describing a track and kill operation carried out using an RAF Reaper Unmanned Aerial System (drone) that extended over 5 hours. In all likelihood this type of operation could not be carried out by any means other than an armed drone.

On one mission this week, the Reaper was tasked with tracking a known insurgent travelling on a motorbike in the region of Lashkar Gah. Over the course of 5 hours the Reaper tracked the insurgent and it was only once there was no risk to civilians that the aircraft was authorised to carry out a successful strike.
This account does not reveal whether this known insurgent was armed or whether he was engaged in hostilities at the time that he was killed. The answers to these questions are a matter of legitimate public interest. If he was not then this effectively amounts to a state sponsored assassination. Whether assassination should become a key part of NATO foreign policy and military strategy is a matter of topical debate. These and other questions are being discussed at two separate meetings in London today. Pax Christi has arranged a seminar on the use of drones involving experts in law and military ethics. In addition a two-day workshop involving an array of international speakers has been organised by University of Surrey titled “Hitting the Target? How new capabilities are shaping contemporary international intervention”.

Methodist Conference and URC General Assembly have passed resolutions calling for greater transparency around the UK’s use of Unmanned Aerial Systems. On behalf of our churches we will be engaging with the Ministry of Defence seeking clarification on UK policy and practice and will keep you posted on progress. Your suggestions as to how our churches should be responding to these ethical questions are welcome. Leave a comment here or email me at