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UK committee urges more legal clarity on overseas UAV strikes

An inquiry into the UK government’s targeted killings overseas using unmanned air vehicles has concluded that more clarification is needed to distinguish the legal boundaries between armed conflicts and counter-terrorism operations.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights is urging the government to consider the accountability of the use of such force in counter-terrorism operations, asserting that the Intelligence and Security Committee should be given a more prominent role in assessing these actions.

The inquiry was called after the killing of British militant Reyaad Khan in Syria on 21 August 2015, carried out by a Royal Air Force General Atomics Aeronautical Systems MQ-9 Reaper some three months before the House of Commons authorised action against the Islamic State in Syria.

The government claims the strike was carried out as part of the armed conflict that the UK was already involved with in Iraq – a claim that “the committee accepts”, it says.

However, the committee observes that the government’s position is it is willing to use lethal force outside of a designated armed conflict "in exceptional circumstances", if it is the only perceivable way of preventing an attack on the UK. The committee considers this to be a policy that “requires urgent clarification”.

“We recommend that the government establishes how it understands key concepts, such as what constitutes an ‘imminent threat’ under international law,” the committee says. “Most significantly, the government should explain why in its view the law of war, rather than human rights law, applies to a use of lethal force abroad outside armed conflict.”

It adds that the government must acknowledge that when it takes a life outside of an armed conflict, the “higher standards” laid down in the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights have to be met.

It also notes that international consensus on these policies needs to be established with the input of the UN Human Rights Council and the Council of Europe, and the UK’s involvement in other nations’ counter-terrorism operations of this sort – such as those carried out by the USA – needs clarification.

“It is only where the taking of life is in an armed conflict, that the lower standards of the law of war applies,” the committee says.

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The RAF has deployed its 10-strong fleet of Reapers over Iraq and Syria in support of the coalition campaign against IS, during which it has demonstrated a dependence on the type and its Lockheed Martin AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles.

Figures released by the government in January showed that 93 and 94 Hellfires were deployed from the RAF's Reapers in 2013 and 2014 respectively, with a steep increase – to 258 rounds fired – in 2015. The shift represents the lessened role of the Reaper as the UK withdrew from Afghanistan in 2014 to the RAF's reliance on the UAV for operations in Iraq.

Committee chair Harriet Harman says that the combination of new technology such as UAVs with the evolution of armed conflicts to include non-traditional parties has blurred the lines between war and counter-terrorism.

“When dealing with an issue of such grave importance, taking a life in order to protect lives, the government should have been crystal clear about the legal basis for this action from the outset. They were not,” she says.

“When the government orders our military to take a life outside of armed conflict, there should be proper accountability. Those making and carrying out the order to take a life need to know that there will be independent scrutiny to ensure that the highest standards have been adhered to.”

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