British ministers, intelligence officers, and drone pilots are at risk of criminal prosecution over their role in covert drone strikes abroad, said a parliamentary report published on Tuesday. It calls on the government to "urgently" clarify its legal position on drone strikes outside of war zones, after finding that a lack of clear policy may expose those involved to "criminal prosecution for murder or complicity in murder."
The inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) — a cross-party group of members of parliament — found that confusion reigns within the British government over the legal justification for assassinations outside of declared war zones. It follows revelations by VICE News last month that British intelligence helped direct lethal US drone strikes in Yemen for years.
The JCHR's report, titled "The Government's policy on the use of drones for targeted killing," notes that the defense secretary, in evidence given to the committee, demonstrated a "misunderstanding of the legal frameworks that apply" to the use of armed drones outside war zones.
"We owe it to all those involved in the chain of command for such uses of lethal force to provide them with absolute clarity about the circumstances in which they will have a defense against any possible future criminal prosecution, including those which might originate from outside the UK," said the committee.
The influential parliamentary committee, chaired by former deputy leader of the opposition Labour party Harriet Harman, also raises fears that the UK "may end up in the same place as the US policy" on assassinations outside of declared war zones.
Last September, Prime Minister David Cameron admitted that a "targeted strike" had been carried out in Syria — the first time in modern times" that British assets had been used for an attack in "a country where we are not involved in a war." The strike killed a British jihadist who had been planning attacks in the UK, said the PM.
The British government has generally distanced itself from suggestions that it is following the US model of "targeted killing." It has also refused to answer questions by MPs and the committee as to whether it maintains its own "Kill List" of individuals set for targeting, like the United States.
However a six month investigation by VICE News published last month revealed that for the past decade British intelligence and military personnel systematically co-operated with US and Yemeni agencies in the covert war against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) members in Yemen.
The covert "war on terror" in Yemen had long been characterized as a unilateral policy of the United States. However the investigation found that through use of double agents, surveillance, and electronic tagging, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, known as MI6) assisted in identifying and locating human targets for American drone strikes.
Since 9/11, the United States has directed hundreds of covert drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, countries with which it is not formally at war. The program is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians. General Michael Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama described it as a "failed strategy."
Last November, Harman told an audience at the Royal United Service Institute conference on drones in November 2015: "We must look at governance where we hand intelligence to others, such as the US, leading to a strike. We are culpable in that process."
Now, the JCHR report asks the government to clarify its legal basis for facilitating drone strikes outside of war zones by partner nations such as the US.
In two cases documented by VICE News, witnesses and family members described how CIA drone attacks killed and injured civilians in Yemen. In one of those cases, on March 20, 2012, a targeted strike on a Syrian doctor working for AQAP also killed a civilian bystander and injured five children. Within days, AQAP gave the families money and brought the children gifts. The US and UK said nothing to the victims' families.
Testimony gathered by VICE News made it possible to geolocate the site of the blast, its target, and the victims, which revealed a disturbing detail: the CIA broke US military rules of engagement by striking at a time when there was a high risk of civilian casualties. In that case, an SIS double agent had provided crucial intelligence to the CIA for the drone strike. As such the UK government may be complicit in the CIA's violation of its rules of engagement and killing and injury of civilians.
The JCHR launched its inquiry following Cameron's announcement that British drones had assassinated 21-year-old UK national and Islamic State (IS) member Reyaad Khan in Syria last August. Another Briton and a Belgian who were travelling in the same vehicle also died.
Another British-born IS member, Junaid Hussain, was killed in a separate joint UK-US strike days later. Last January, the US military revealed that civilians had been killed in a prior assassination attempt on Hussain. UK involvement is suspected in the previous assassination attempts but the government has refused to confirm or deny it.
Commenting on the UK government's participation in the inquiry, the committee said they were disappointed "by the government's failure to answer a number of important questions," and criticized "contradictions and inconsistencies in the government's account of its policy, which have given rise to confusion."
Jennifer Gibson, a staff attorney at human rights NGO Reprieve, which represents victims of drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, said: "This report is a wake up call. Not only does the committee raise troubling questions about whether the government 'misunderstood' the legal frameworks that apply, but it warns they may be at risk of prosecution for murder as a result.
"The UK's silence in the face of repeated questioning by the committee only further reinforces the very real danger that the UK is following the US down the slippery slope of kill lists and targeted killings. This is alarming given the CIA's secret drone war has killed hundreds of civilians and been described as a "failed strategy" by Obama's own former head of defense intelligence."
Follow Namir Shabibi on Twitter: @nshabibi