Skip to main content


Volume 743: debated on Thursday 7 February 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what bilateral and multilateral discussions they are having on the regulation of the civil and military use of drones.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government and the UK Civil Aviation Authority are working with both the International Civil Aviation Organisation and the European Commission and EU member states on developing harmonised rules and regulation for the safe integration of civil remotely piloted aircraft systems into both European and global air space. The Ministry of Defence is not involved in any bilateral or multilateral discussions specifically on the regulation of the military use of remotely piloted aircraft systems but is involved in more general discussions on arms control, such as the UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. Does he not agree that, as far as the domestic situation is concerned, whatever the value of drones for emergency services and the like, their increasing availability makes the need for some sort of code an urgent priority? When it comes to the international scene, how do the Government define the difference between extra-judicial killing and legitimate killing? How can transparent accountability for every civilian, not least innocent children, be ensured? How can the use of drones in areas not defined by the UN as conflict zones be justified? Is there not a desperate need for something like the Geneva Conventions?

The noble Lord has asked several complex questions and I will try to answer some of them. The development of civil systems is clearly a complicated area. Basically, for large unmanned systems, the same rules apply as for manned aircraft. For small unmanned systems—there are now some very small unmanned systems—provided they are within the sight of the person controlling them, regulations need not apply. Clearly, a lot more work is needed in that area. On the international dimension, the question of extra-judicial killings is something which, as those who have read this morning’s Guardian will know, is being actively debated in the United States as we speak.

My Lords, on 20 November 2012, the Senior Minister of State at the Foreign Office, the noble Baroness, Lady Warsi, assured me that the UN special rapporteur for human rights and countering terrorism was preparing a report to the UN on the issue of drones. That was in response to a question I had asked her along the lines of the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Judd, today. Can the noble Lord tell the House what progress there has been in terms of Her Majesty’s Government’s contribution to the report of the special rapporteur and when we can expect it to be forthcoming?

My Lords, I am not briefed on that specific question and will have to write to the noble Baroness. We are, of course, in conversations with others about the use of drones. On the specific issues being discussed in the United States at the present moment, I simply stress that the United Kingdom has used drones for military purposes only in Afghanistan.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the control of the military use of drones is absolutely necessary internationally? The carrying out of extra-judicial killings in the sovereign airspace of other nations is a very dangerous precedent. Something needs to be done about it very urgently.

My Lords, the question is very much about the use across national boundaries in areas where there is not an active conflict. I simply stress again that the United Kingdom has used military drones only inside Afghanistan and that we are in Afghanistan at the invitation of the Afghan Government. There is an active debate in the United States about the American use of drones across national frontiers in areas where it is a question of terrorist threats to the United States rather than local conflict.

Since we know that 51 states now have the technology to use drones, does the Minister agree that it is essential that a proper legal framework is urgently put in place and that action is taken to ensure that there is accountability and reparation when things go wrong as a result of a drone attack? Does the UK support the stated view of the UN special rapporteur, who is to conduct an investigation into the spread of drone technology, that we urgently need to know the extent of civilian casualties, the identity of militants targeted and the legality of strikes where the UN does not recognise that there actually is a conflict?

My Lords, unmanned aerial vehicles are spreading around the world. My figures say that some 80 countries now have some capacity, or have been involved in purchasing such capacity, so this is spreading very quickly. Clearly, we do need to develop international law and practice on this. We also have large issues about what happens in ungoverned space, such as aspects of the Sahel and, until very recently, some parts of Somalia. I stress that the largest single use of unmanned aerial vehicles for military purposes is in surveillance and reconnaissance and not in direct strikes.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister’s remarks about the progress in the United States. However, does not a world characterised by the proliferation of armed drones, without an internationally supported framework of regulation, undermine our core interests such as preventing armed conflict, promoting human rights and strengthening international legal regimes? Could the present role of the United Kingdom be one which enables and begins the process of trying to find some kind of international regulatory process?

My Lords, there are some benefits from unmanned drones, particularly in terms of reconnaissance—maritime reconnaissance off Somalia and so on—because these aircraft have much longer endurance than manned aircraft. I would add that the question of whether distantly controlled aircraft encourage people to be less careful in their use of military weapons is one which I have spent some time studying. I am rather reassured that, because of the ability of unmanned aircraft to loiter over the site, not only is target acquisition more carefully attended to than if you are in a fast aircraft but you are asked to look at what happened afterwards. I am told that this means that those who are controlling these aircraft have a thorough sense of responsibility for what has been done.

My Lords, following on from the Minister’s previous answer, whenever one makes war less horrible—war is horrible, death is horrible and being involved in the risk is horrible—and kills people remotely from some leafy suburb in the middle of one’s own country, it makes it remote, which has huge implications and is very worrying. It needs a lot of control. Does the Minister agree?

My Lords, the Armed Forces are well aware of that and that matter is under active discussion at the present moment.