Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Rethinking counter-terrorism: drones and targeted killings

Malala Yousafzai recently told Barack Obama that drone attacks are fuelling terrorism in Pakistan. There are few people more opposed to the Taliban than Malala. They tried to deny her an education, and then they tried to take her life. So when she says drone strikes are making things worse, we should listen. We should also listen to Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of the international forces in Afghanistan and a renowned counter-insurgency expert, who recently said the same thing.

This week the European parliament will hold a specific debate on the use of drones for the first time. It is expected to uphold their use within recognised international law, but question how they have been used for extra-judicial killings, apparently in contravention of human rights law. It is also expected to call for efforts towards international standards to be established on their use.

Let’s be clear: a drone is a piece of military equipment which can be used for legitimate defence but also misused, like any other. Current British military thinking doesn’t even recognise the very word ‘drone,’ preferring the more neutral ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’.

Nevertheless, it is equally clear that in counter-terrorism drones have become a growing industry. They’re relatively cheap, they’re precise, and they help us to avoid risking the lives of our soldiers and pilots.

For UK forces in Afghanistan they fulfil a crucial role, watching over British troops on the ground and scanning for explosive devices and other traps. The exponential increase in the use of drones is undoubtedly revolutionising warfare as we know it. And with at least 75 countries now in possession of the technology they’re here to stay.

But the use of drone strikes, or targeted killings, against terrorist targets in areas outside of defined conflict zones has become increasingly controversial, both among human rights activists and security experts.

For those who want to implicate the last Labour government, it is important to put on record that Britain has only used drones in the military conflict in Afghanistan, not elsewhere, overwhelmingly for reconnaissance not for military strikes, and always piloted – albeit remotely – like any other aircraft.

However, controversy is raging in the United States, where the administration acknowledges it carries out assassinations, arguing that people affiliated to militant groups should be targeted even if they reside in areas where there is no war.

When I put this point personally to a senior US officer, his reply was that if Pakistan fails to combat terrorism in its own territory, the US has no alternative.

However, it is now widely accepted that the concept of a ‘war on terror,’ developed initially by the Bush administration, has risked misusing the rules of war which require combatants to do their utmost to protect innocent civilians, and to respect recognised human rights, including the right to life and the right to a fair trial.

In Pakistan opposition comes not only from Malala but also ex-cricketer now political leader Imran Khan, who told me the deaths of over 2,000 Pakistanis, including hundreds of civilians, has caused deep-seated resentment towards the west. Had he won last year’s election, he was committed to instructing the country’s air force to shoot down drones of its supposed friendly ally, the US.

Two American practices have been especially controversial – so called ‘double-tapping’ and ‘signature strikes’. Double-tapping is the innocuous term given to drone attacks in which a second missile follows the first, killing whoever rushes to offer medical help or to search for loved ones. This tactic, targeting medical personnel or the wounded, should raise concern as some suggest it could constitute a war crime.

Meanwhile, signature strikes have been thought to be used to target groups of men whose behaviour is merely deemed suspicious and whose appearance and activities include the ‘signatures’ which link them with hostile activity. The potential for error is dramatically increased, as killings appear to be based on judgements about characteristics and behaviour rather than sound intelligence.

For those who might suggest that questioning the use of drones undermines legitimate efforts to combat terrorism, experience in Pakistan suggests that it is their current usage which may itself be counterproductive. A 2012 Pew poll suggested over 70 per cent of Pakistanis view the USA as the enemy. In the words of Pakistani journalist, Noor Behram: ‘when people are out there picking up body parts after a drone strike, it is very easy to convince these people to fight.’

We have to wonder whether the damage targeted killings does in terms of causing resentment and drawing new recruits to militant groups outweighs the tactical value of assassinating suspected terrorists.

We also have to wonder whether using drones in this way could encourage others to do the same, potentially putting our own citizens at risk.

In the European parliament, on behalf of Labour members of the European parliament, I will oppose attempts to restrict research on manned drone technology, which could also be counterproductive if it blocks attempts to improve accuracy and thus save civilian lives. I will also oppose any attempt to retreat in to lazy anti-Americanism.

However, I will put Labour MEPs’ concern about the use of drones, echoing regret at deaths caused to innocent civilians, scepticism about the development of fully unmanned weapons and underlining the need to respect the sovereignty of nation states expressed by shadow defence minister Kevan Jones in a recent Westminster Hall debate. Former shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy had already called for international rules of engagement for drones; the US is now reported to be intending to ‘codify’ their use. This new European initiative could be a vital push towards international negotiations which could ultimately serve to both strengthen human rights and improve security for us all.

In contrast I am sad that the official UK government briefing for the debate highlights how it is opposed to the development of a ‘European drone,’ despite this being not even being in the proposed text – another ‘Aunt Sally’ aimed at their own Eurosceptic backbenches rather than entering in to a serious debate with European colleagues. Unlike the Tories, Labour isn’t frightened of European debate, and – on this issue as on others – it is our party that is always more likely to win the argument to protect and promote British positions.

There are two things Britain should do to help promote the responsible, effective use of drones in counter-terrorism. First, continue and make explicit our policy of restricting the UK’s own use of drones to defined areas of conflict like Afghanistan. Second, engage with our allies, including the US but in Europe too, to establish clear rules of engagement at the international level for their use.


Richard Howitt is member of the European parliament for the east of England. He is Labour spokesperson on foreign affairs and security in the European parliament, and prepared this article in his capacity as advisory group member of the Labour Campaign for Human Rights. He tweets @richardhowitt

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Richard Howitt MEP

is member of the European parliament for the east of England

1 comment

  • Does not this sort of activity by an ally inrease the risk of radicalization of British Asians? Is it good UK politics anyway?

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