Skip to main content

International Law: Use of Drones

Volume 740: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the legal and diplomatic implications of the use of drones across national boundaries.

My Lords, the British Government’s position is that the use of unmanned aerial vehicles against targets is a matter for the states involved. We expect all concerned to act in accordance with international law, including taking all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties when conducting military operations.

I thank my noble friend for that reply. She will be aware that international human rights law permits the intentional use of lethal force only when necessary to protect against a threat to life and where there are no other means, such as capture, available. Targeted killings are not lawful as the action has to be strictly necessary and proportionate. Given that the use of armed drones engages four major UN conventions as well as Article 51 of the UN charter, will she tell the House what measures the UK is taking to abide by international law and to encourage allies, such as the United States, to do the same?

In all our discussions when these matters are raised, we expect all states concerned to act in accordance with international law and to take all feasible precautions to avoid civilian casualties. We understand that the UN special rapporteur for human rights and countering terrorism intends to give consideration to these issues of drone strikes in a future report to the UN General Assembly.

The use of drones may be effective or ineffective, productive or counterproductive, but is there any difference in principle between the use of drones and the use in armed conflict of rockets or artillery across national frontiers?

My Lords, I can comment only upon the actions of the United Kingdom and I assure the noble Lord that the Government are mindful of all their obligations under international law when they engage in military activity.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that if a drone can remain poised for some hours above a target, it is less likely to create collateral damage than almost any other form of shelling, or the missiles to which the noble Lord referred, or any other form of trying to kill people?

My noble friend is probably more of an expert on these matters than I am. I cannot answer that question; I am not familiar enough with the practice of how drones would operate over lengthy periods.

My Lords, in the light of the unknown number of civilian casualties as a result of drone attacks in Pakistan, when no armed conflict has been declared and the United States is not at war, does the Minister agree that such attacks are illegal under international humanitarian law and that there is now a need for an enhanced arms limitation treaty?

The right reverend Prelate raises an important point. I can confirm to the House that the UK has not used armed drones against targets in Pakistan. It is a matter for individual states engaged in those practices to discuss those matters.

Does the Minister not agree that there is great urgency in this situation? There is a real danger that we could slip into an age of political assassination, targeted killing and the condoning of extra-judicial murder. Is there not also a danger that, if this trend continues without careful international deliberation about its implications, we could slip into an age in which war becomes an easier management option as distinct from a really grave step to take after everything else has been tried?

The noble Lord is right to raise the matter; this is an important issue and an important debate. In fact, it was on the front page of the Times today and has been on the front pages of many of our newspapers over time. He will be aware of parliamentary interest in both this House and the other place. In relation to the UK’s conduct, specifically in Pakistan, I can confirm that we do not use armed drones against targets there. We do use unmanned air systems—drones—in Afghanistan, predominantly for surveillance and recognisance tasks.

My Lords, in addition to the method of technology described already, we now have the possibility of attacks not only by land, sea, air and space but in cyberspace. This is highly complex and had the Stuxnet attack on Iran taken place in any of the other four media, it would have been regarded as a declaration of war. It is no longer clear what a declaration of war amounts to when it is in cyberspace. Will my noble friend the Minister describe what work the Government are doing legally and diplomatically to clarify declarations of war in this new medium?

I am not sure what specific work is ongoing in relation to that, but I can write to the noble Lord to confirm. Of course this is a highly difficult issue; there are emotions and views on both sides of this argument. However, using unmanned air systems in Afghanistan provides vital intelligence for us in support of our forces on the ground.

My Lords, I wholly understand the Minister making the point that we have not used our armed drones in Pakistan or in many other settings. She plainly cannot be pressed for whether we believe it was legal or not because, on that basis, it is legal. Can she tell the House what will be the character of the evidence that we might give to the UN special rapporteur? Will it be made available to the House through the Library, so that we can get a full appreciation of the circumstances in which we use drones and make an assessment for ourselves?

The noble Lord will be aware that there is an ongoing legal matter—a judicial review—in relation to some of the questions that he raises. In relation to the specific evidence and discussions that we will be having with the special rapporteur, I will certainly consider that and, if appropriate, report back to the House.