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Drones

First drone strike from UK soil a worrying development

A Reaper drone

A UK Reaper drone armed with four Hellfire missiles and two laser-guided bombs.

This week, for the first time, the UK fired explosive weapons from a drone that was directly controlled from a base on UK soil.

The strike in Afghanistan was confirmed in a statement from the Ministry of Defence.[1] But, as with most drone strikes, there was no word on whether casualties resulted from this strike, or who they were.

The Reaper drones used by the UK air force at RAF Waddington are armed with 500lb bombs and ‘Hellfire’ missiles – which have a relatively small explosive warhead.[2] In common with all explosive weapons, these bombs and missiles fired by drones kill and injure people by projecting blast and fragmentation around the point of detonation.

This is by no means the first time the UK has fired explosive weapons from a drone. According to Drone Wars UK, there were 120 UK drone strikes in Afghanistan in 2012.[3] However, the establishment of a dedicated base in the UK is yet another troubling step in the rapid proliferation of this technology.

Over the past two years, AOAV has monitored the worldwide incidents and impacts of explosive weapons, including drone strikes. Its monitoring of English-language media reports recorded 92 incidents in 2012 in which a drone strike caused at least one casualty. Incidents were recorded in six different countries and territories, including Afghanistan, Egypt, Gaza, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

The impact that drone strikes have had on civilians is unclear. In 2012, AOAV recorded only 43 civilian deaths and injuries, compared to 627 combatant casualties. However, many of the drone strikes were reported in remote and insecure parts of Pakistan and Yemen, where journalists had limited or no access. It is likely that civilian casualties from drone use could be higher.

The lack of any transparency regarding the use of drones and the casualties they cause is one of many pressing issues of concern as drones become a more popular weapon platform among states. The UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights has pointed out that states have a legal obligation to investigate claims that drone strikes cause civilian casualties, and much more needs to be done to hold drone users to account.[4]

The UN recently launched an investigation into possible civilian casualties caused by drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and the Palestinian territories.[5] In the UK, a new group of parliamentarians have formed to examine the legal and ethical questions surrounding the use of drones. Their early work confirms the concerns of human rights groups, and questions asked in Parliament are revealing serious flaws in the Ministry of Defence’s approach to recording casualties from drones.[6]

Both these initiatives are welcome efforts to finally hold drone users to greater account. But, as this week’s development shows, oversight mechanisms always seem at least one step behind deployment.

Iain Overton, Director of Policy and Investigations at AOAV, said: “In the past, researchers have noted a spike in drone strikes in Pakistan when US military flight operatives in the mid-west arrive at their desks after breakfast, fuelled by a Starbucks coffee and a waffle.

The same could now become commonplace in the UK.

A finger presses a button and thousands of miles away a life is taken: it’s no coincidence that militaries now recruit from video gaming competitions and shows.

We have already seen the UK government taking away the British citizenship of insurgents who are shortly after killed by drone strikes.  You have to wonder, with this new development, where it all ends.”

 


[1] Robert Wall, “U.K. Conducts Firsts Reaper Drone Strike Controlled From Britain,” Bloomberg, 1 May 2013, www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-05-01/u-k-conducts-firsts-reaper-drone-strike-controlled-from-britain.html (accessed 2 May 2013).

[2] Royal Air Force, “RAF Waddington: Number 39 Squadron,” www.raf.mod.uk/rafwaddington/aboutus/39squadron.cfm (accessed 2 May 2013).

[3] Chris Cole, “Turning the spotlight on British drone secrets,” Drone Wars UK, 08 March 2013, http://dronewarsuk.wordpress.com/2013/03/08/turning-the-spotlight-on-british-drone-secrets/ (accessed 2 May 2013).

[4] United Nations Human Rights, “Statement by Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights concerning the launch of an inquiry into the civilian impact, and human rights implications of the use drones and other forms of targeted killings for the purpose of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency,” www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Terrorism/SRCTBenEmmersonQC.24January12.pdf (accessed 2 May 2013).

[5] United Nations Human Rights, “Statement by Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights concerning the launch of an inquiry into the civilian impact, and human rights implications of the use drones and other forms of targeted killings for the purpose of counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency,” www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Terrorism/SRCTBenEmmersonQC.24January12.pdf (accessed 2 May 2013).

[6] All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones, “Home to roost: drones now operated from the UK,” 29 April 2013, http://appgondrones.wordpress.com/2013/04/29/home-to-roost-drones-now-operated-from-the-uk/#more-283 (accessed 2 May 2013).