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UK warned to increase transparency of armed UAV operations

Failure of the British government to inform Parliament of its intention to redeploy armed unmanned air vehicles outside recognised warzones may result in legal action, a charity and law firm have warned.

Following a notification by the UK's minister of state for the armed forces, Mark Francois, in July that claimed it was not necessary for Parliament to approve UAV strikes, charity Reprieve and law firm Deighton Pierce Glynn notified the government that action will be taken if it is not clear on where armed UAVs are being used.

“As is the case for the routine deployment of other military assets, the Ministry of Defence may notify Parliament of the deployment of UK Reaper remotely piloted aircraft systems, but there is no intention for parliamentary approval to be sought prior to each deployment or redeployment,” Francois said in a parliamentary response on 10 July.

In response to this, Reprieve’s legal director Kat Craig claims: “The public must be allowed to know when and where our government sends armed drones to carry out deadly strikes – if the government resists this, it will strike at the heart of our democratic traditions.”

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The charity and law firm warn that the UK must not follow in the USA’s footsteps, which routinely carries out armed UAV operations in Yemen and Pakistan deemed illegal by some because they are out of a recognised warzone and are operated by non-military CIA personnel.

“It is bad enough that the UK already supports the CIA's secret, illegal drone campaign, but there is now a real risk that Britain will follow the US down the slippery slope to an endless, global war without limits and without accountability,” Craig adds.

A Yemeni man – Saeed Al Yousefi – lives in a province frequented by CIA UAV strikes and has acted as a catalyst for this legal action, according to Reprieve; the legal actions were filed on his behalf.

The Royal Air Force’s General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper UAVs are deployed to Afghanistan but are operated by the RAF from Creech AFB in Nevada, USA and RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire, UK.

In July it was announced that the RAF’s 10-strong Reaper fleet would be brought into the service's core fleet following speculation as to what would happen to the UAVs post-Afghanistan. However, the matter of where they will be utilised after forces withdraw at the end of 2014 remains to be seen.

The UK has recently committed – at least in part – to supporting crises around the world, including the fight against an Islamic extremist uprising in Iraq and Syria and supporting Ukraine against Russian advances on its territory.

The USA is already carrying out strikes using its Reaper fleet over Iraq and Syria, but the UK has yet to commit any offensive assets to the cause, although this could be a potential operational theatre for the RAF’s UAVs once they are removed from Afghanistan.

The notification of these legal proceedings comes at a time when the UN Human Rights Council is holding a panel discussion on ensuring that remotely piloted aircraft are operated within the boundaries of international law, which the UK was expected to stand before. The panel was due to take place on the morning of 22 September in Geneva.

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