The UK government faces a legal challenge from human rights activists after refusing to release its comprehensive policy on deadly drone strikes, arguing the document is so sensitive that revealing the content would jeopardize the links of security with the United States.

Concerns about strikes deployed outside the confines of an official armed conflict were first raised six years ago, when British citizen Reyaad Khan was killed in Syria by an RAF drone. Since then – and following further drone killings – MPs and parliamentary committees have repeatedly requested access to the Defense Ministry’s targeting guidelines, but have been denied.

The Defense Ministry finally released a highly drafted version of its targeting policy, known as JSP 900, seven months ago in response to freedom of information requests from activist Ceri Gibbons, backed by the reprieve legal charity. Campaigners are now seeking full disclosure of the policy to ensure that British military personnel are not complicit in human rights abuses while working with partners such as the United States who have different interpretations of international law.

Ulrike Franke, drone technology expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said questions about drone operations between the UK and the US “matter not only for historical reasons but also for the future, because the cooperation between the United States and the United Kingdom on drones is still ongoing, and in fact the United Kingdom should receive more systems built in the United States.

The United Kingdom was the first country allowed to purchase armed Reaper drones from the United States. The RAF’s First Reaper Squadron operated from Air Force Base Creech in Nevada. Britain has nine Reapers and has ordered 16 Protector drones; the first eight should be delivered at the end of 2023.

The level of interoperability is such that UK Reaper operations use intelligence provided by US satellite networks and US drone operations will also benefit from intelligence gathering in the UK.

When the United States killed British activist Isis Mohammed Emwazi with a drone strike in Syria in 2015, then Prime Minister David Cameron said Britain had worked “hand in hand With the American allies to carry out the operation and had been “essential” to its success. .

In a hearing in a freedom of information tribunal last week, the defense ministry issued a directive, which is separate from its targeting policy. According to Reprieve, this document suggests that British pilots integrated with American forces “could potentially be engaged in strike operations in areas beyond those approved by Parliament, and in areas such as Pakistan and Yemen, where the US drone program has come under heavy criticism for its illegality. . ”

However, the Department of Defense refused to release an unredacted version of JSP 900 because the selected sections contain information provided by the United States.

“A senior US official has requested that this particular information not be disclosed,” reads the Defense Department’s skeleton argument, citing a Department witness. He adds that the publication of the policy would have a direct impact on defense as “it would hamper future opportunities for information sharing and tactical sharing as we could not be trusted to adequately protect this information.”

This would have “serious consequences for our defense, our security and our cooperation”, we read in the communication from the Ministry of Defense.

Justin Bronk, an air power expert at the Royal United Services Institute, said that even if the court rules against Reprieve, the charity’s efforts to release the entire targeting document could prove “embarrassing” for Great Britain. The UK has unusually tight access to the US Air Force and, for example, has exchange officers who operate high-security aircraft such as the B-2 Spirit stealth bomber, which forms the one of the arms of the American nuclear triad.

“It’s a very close relationship, military to military, and unique even compared to other allies close to the United States like France or the Five Eyes. [intelligence-sharing] nations, ”Bronk said. “This is something incredibly valuable, which is not often talked about in public, and which the UK will be very keen to defend.”

The drone strikes are part of a cluster of covert operations – including special force deployments, interrogations and renditions – that have traditionally escaped parliamentary control.

David Davis, a former Conservative cabinet minister, said the UK has a habit of ‘crossing the line’ of what is legal using technical details involving US partners, and urged the Department of Defense to publish the unredacted JSP 900.

“We have known from the post 9/11 period that the government said one thing about torture but did another on the ground. . . in particular by facilitating American rendition, by doing things like integrating American troops into British units, and vice versa, ”he said. “The temptation must also be there with the drone strikes.”

The Ministry of Defense said British service personnel are regularly integrated with Allied forces and operate in accordance with British law and applicable international law “at all times” during deployments.

“There is a strict governance process which ensures that a British member of the armed forces will not support an operation which violates the law of armed conflict or any other relevant legal principle,” said a spokesperson.

The court ruling is expected in the coming months.


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