Drone inquiry has all the hallmarks of a whitewash

Press Release from Scotland Against Criminalising Communities

The Times has today (20 November 2012) reported that members of the Commons Defence Select Committee are to investigate the use of drones in Afghanistan.

Parliament has yet to publish an official announcement of the inquiry. But the inquiry already has all the hallmarks of a whitewash.

James Arbuthnot, Chair of the Defence Select Committee, told The Times that "the issues that are concerning people are the distance between the person who is controlling the platform and the death that results from it." It would be deeply worrying if the inquiry were to focus on this narrowly moralistic concern at the expense of the wider political and human rights issues raised by the new technology.

Drones are being used to kill large numbers of people in Afghanistan and (by the US) in Pakistan, often far behind any discernible battle lines. US drone campaigns in Yemen and Somalia, widely perceived as limited assassination campaigns, have also resulted in very substantial fatalities. Drones are used less as a battlefield weapon than as an easy substitute for the kind of terror operations that have in the past been carried out by Indian troops in Kashmir and by British forces in Malaysia and Kenya and other colonial territories. SACC believes that this kind of warfare can never be justified, whether carried out by brutalised soldiers or by remotely controlled aircraft.

SACC welcomes news of the inquiry by the Defence Select Committee, as we would welcome any inquiry likely to place more information about Britain's ongoing drone war in the public domain. But the inquiry - which the Times says will take two years - is no substitute for governmental openness and public debate. At present, we have no idea how many people have been killed by British drones in Afghanistan, and we have no idea whether Britain is providing intelligence to support US drone killings elsewhere in the world. The government must immediately release all the information it holds on these matters.

Richard Haley, Chair of SACC, said:

"Drones make war crimes easy. No one expects a drone to take prisoners. Military and civilian drone operators are carrying out the kind of murder campaigns that were performed in previous colonial wars by infantry platoons and unofficial death squads. We should be putting this kind of thuggery behind us, not automating it.

Journalists and campaigners are at last beginning to push aside the cloak of secrecy that has lain over Britain's drone war. I fear that the Government will respond by using the novelty of the technology to distract us from its efforts to devise dangerous new interpretations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law."

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Notes for editors

  1. The Commons Defence Select Committee investigation into drones was reported in The Times on 20 November.
  2. The US has carried out 350 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (shown in a recent report from Columbia University Law School to have done the most reliable work on this matter) estimates that out of 2,593-3,378 people killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan, 475-885 were not alleged militants. 176 children were killed. Even if it is accepted that all alleged militants should be regarded as non-civilians, and even if it is accepted that they are legitimate targets while in Pakistan and engaged in activities that aren't obviously of a military nature, that still means that 475-885 civilians have been killed in the course of 350 drone strikes. This civilian fatality rate is far too high (it is very much higher than that resulting from rockets fired into Israel from Gaza) and indicates that any US efforts to minimise civilian casualties are grossly inadequate.
  3. The Government of Pakistan says that US drone attacks in the country are llegal and that "there can be no question of Pakistan's agreement to such attacks." The US claims that the attacks are carried out with the tacit approval of the Government of Pakistan.
  4. The British Government has refused to disclose whether or not it provides the US with intelligence to support drone strikes in Pakistan.
  5. Britain had by September 2012 carried out 334 drone strikes in Afghanistan. It acknowledges that four civilian deaths resulted from one of these strikes. The total number of fatalities - civilian and otherwise - is unknown. The Government has refused every Freedom of Information request for substantial data on its drone strikes and has refused to release a Ministry of Defence report into the 4 acknowledged civilian deaths.