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Britain’s part in the ‘drone war’ in Yemen urgently needs explaining

Yemenis have lived under the shadow of drones for years. EPA/Yahya Arhab

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, more commonly known as drones, have become the most talked-about weapon of 21st-century warfare – and whether used for surveillance or strikes, semi-secret drone programmes are an endless source of debate.

The debate in the UK has been reignited by recent revelations, broken by Vice News, alleging that Britain has been deeply involved in years of US-led drone operations in Yemen.

The story lays out what Vice News calls a “systemic collaboration” between the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6) and the CIA. Drawing on testimony from international officials and sources, it alleges that British “agents” and “capabilities” have aided America’s CIA-led operations in Yemen – playing both “a crucial and sustained role” in intelligence acquisition for drone strikes, and, on occasion – British Special forces taking the lead “in ‘hits’, or missions to kill or capture AQAP (al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula) fixers and facilitators”.

Vice News alleges that the UK has become embroiled as a key and deadly actor in the US’s forays in Yemen. That’s in direct contradiction of Foreign Office minister Hugh Robertson’s 2014 statement that “drone strikes against terrorist targets in Yemen are a matter for the Yemeni and US governments”.

If the UK has indeed collaborated with the US in these operations, the Ministry of Defence’s 2015 statement that “there is a public interest in furthering public understanding of the UK’s military relationship with the US” is as apt as ever.

These revelations and claims fit into the wider context of the UK’s drone operations. It isn’t not just Yemen under scrutiny – events in Syria have also stirred up new criticisms of the UK’s unfolding drone programme.

A new turn

Following the prime minister’s decision to green-light a Royal Air Force strike in Raqqa, Syria on August 21 2015, killing two British citizens and a Belgian citizen, both the action itself and the decision-making processes that underpinned it have come under scrutiny, as they represent a major development in the way the UK approaches “unmanned” warfare.

In parliament, Cameron himself said that these actions mark “the first time in modern times that a British asset has been used to conduct a strike in a country where the UK is not involved in a war”. And, as foreign policy historian Chris Fuller has pointed out, this event in Syria also saw the UK taking a new approach to justifying its strikes, for the first time invoking Article 51 of the UN Charter, in which UN member states can cite self-defence to justify the use of force.

By doing this, the prime minister adopted “the same modern interpretation of International Humanitarian Law which the United States has employed since the launching of its War on Terror”. Citing the events in Syria, Fuller therefore concludes that “a new precedent” for the conduct of UK counterterrorism operations has been set.

In response to this new precedent, groups such as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones voiced concern regarding the prime minister’s indication of “a willingness to strike again”, one not restricted to Syria – but rather including “Libya or anywhere else”. Are we seeing this play out?

Dire consequences

The Remote Control Project recently issued a briefing that both interrogates the idea that drones are “precise, clean and value-free” and offers a range of UK policy recommendations. It also encourages further reflection on the political “blowback” that has greeted the UK’s increasing turn to the drone.

A British Reaper drone. Flickr/Defence Images

In light of the allegations of UK operations in Yemen, the UK appears to be moving further closer to the US model of drone deployment. As such, its leaders might do well to reflect further upon the unfolding of the US’ drone programme, one that, only recently, prompted Barack Obama to personally acknowledge that “civilians have been killed that shouldn’t have been”.

Since its inception, the US’ drone programme has been on the receiving end of unrelenting criticism, recently from a damning report by the Stimson Center which slated the Obama administration’s approach to transparency. Only a month later, the administration announced that it intends to release the so-called “White House Playbook”, which is expected to detail “the standards and procedures employed” in the US’ lethal drone operations. While the announcement has been welcomed, what will come of the release is hard to say.

In spite of the controversy that has surrounded the drone, the UK’s Ministry of Defence both views drones as central to modern warfare (with more armed platforms under development) and says that it’s “difficult to imagine” a future campaign" where they “will not have a role to play”.

This may be so. But if British voters want to change course, to demand transparency rather than opacity, they must continue to press the government about both its policy decisions and the mechanisms of accountability surrounding the UK’s (involvement in the) use of drones.

Unease over recent allegations and the setting of precedents don’t fit with what the House of Commons Defence Committee has described as a “sense of public disquiet … fed in part by misunderstandings and misinformation”. Rather, this unease is an indictment of the government’s failure to level with the public about just what it uses drones to do.

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