Increased use of drones needs serious discussion

This article originally appeared in The Eastern Eye.

We are witnessing a rapid expansion of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as drones, in armed conflicts around the world.

Whilst drones offer the potential to avoid having to place our armed forces in harm’s way, there use, and the Government’s policy on drones, appears to be clouded in secrecy.

Do we know if they are being deployed proportionately and whether enough is being done to prevent civilian casualties?

I believe that a review is needed into how they are currently used and how they may be developed and deployed in the future.

The Government appears to see them as having an increasingly greater role in our armed forces. Last year they decided to double the number of drones in Afghanistan and, for the first time, move their operations to the UK. Previously the UK’s drones have been operated by British personnel from Creech air force base in Nevada.

But we are so intertwined with the United State’s drone programme that our pilots have flown over 2,000 missions using America’s drones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. This means it becomes very difficult to determine accountability and responsibility if civilians are killed.

America’s prolific use of drones, as part of their counter terrorism strategy in countries including Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, has resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties.

Although the true number is not know, it has been estimated that in around 360 strikes in Pakistan, more than 3500 people may have been killed including at least 884 civilians.

This has fed into an anti-western feeling, with 74% of Pakistanis now seeing the US as an enemy and only 17% supporting their use of unmanned strikes.

The distress caused by drone strikes in Pakistan has been detailed in a report from Stanford University and New York University. In it the authors’ describe the strikes effects on cultural, religious and community life, with some families even refusing to send children to school, in case they are attacked.

And so called “double tap” strikes, where the same area is attacked multiple times, has deterred humanitarian assistance.

At a time when Pakistan is facing severe poverty and one in four are living on £1 a day or less, it also threatens to undermine the work achieved through international aid. By 2015 Pakistan could become the UK’s largest recipient of aid, reaching £446m a year. Yet this good will is threatened by the West’s military activities.

One victim of a drone strike was Daud Khan, a local tribal elder from Dattakhel, who was killed in March 2011 along with forty people whilst attending a Jirga (tribal council meeting).

His son, Noor Khan, has launched legal proceedings in the UK alleging that the British Government provided locational intelligence to the CIA about individuals of interest to the United States and that this intelligence is then used to direct drone attacks in Pakistan.

The legal statement for this case asserts that if Government officials assisted the CIA to direct armed attacks in Pakistan, they are in principle liable under domestic criminal law.

Such allegations damage our relationship with Pakistan, who will draw their own inferences from the Government’s refusal to confirm or deny whether intelligence has been shared with the United States. This fosters anti west sentiments, which could be a danger to our own security.

We need to ensure that Afghanistan and Pakistan are safe and secure countries however drone strikes can undermine the important battle of winning over hearts and minds.

These issues deserve serious considerations and if drones are to become more widely used, then we must ensure they are deployed so as not to risk civilian deaths, collateral damage, our international relations and do not pose a danger to our own national security. We must ensure that the UK’s policy on drones and sharing intelligence which may be used in drone strikes in fully compliant with relevant national and international law.