UK Government challenged over ambassadors’ support for drones

February 19, 2014

Legal charity Reprieve has called on the British Government to clarify its position on the covert US drone programme after a series of supportive comments from senior UK ambassadors.

The call comes in response to a piece written by HM Ambassador to the United States, Sir Peter Westmacott, in which he argued that the US should buy the British-made ‘Brimstone’ missile for use on its ‘Reaper’ drones.

Sir Peter’s comments followed those by Jane Marriott, HM Ambassador to Yemen, who said in a recent interview that drone strikes “make a difference” in the country, as “threats” in Yemen “went away after the drone strikes.”

In a letter to the Foreign Secretary, Reprieve Executive Director Clare Algar urged the Government to consider the potential legal and diplomatic consequences of supplying UK-built missiles for use in such strikes, and clarify its own position on the legal and ethical status of the US’ covert drone campaign.

British ministers have until now refused to take a position on the secretive campaign carried out by the CIA and US Special Forces in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen, which violates international law and has caused the deaths of thousands of civilians. In January, Foreign Office Minister Hugh Robertson re-iterated to MPs that “Drone strikes… in Yemen are a matter for the Yemeni and US Governments.”

In her letter to William Hague, Clare Algar also asked the Government to publish its assessment of the numbers of civilians killed in the strikes:

“Your own Government is clearly aware of such controversies, as demonstrated in ministers’ repeated refusals to take a position on the legal or moral issues around such strikes. Such a carefully-trod line would appear to be at odds with Sir Peter’s enthusiastic salesmanship when it comes to supplying the missiles that would, in future, destroy targets in Yemen  – an alarming prospect when one considers that, as recently as December, one such strike was reported as having “turn[ed] a wedding into a funeral”.

“It would therefore appear that this country’s ambassadors are prepared to go much further in making their views clear on this issue than are our own elected representatives… The public positions taken on such matters by UK Government officials mean it is no longer possible for UK ministers to refuse to address these crucial questions.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

1. For further information, please contact Reprieve’s press office: +44 (0) 207 553 8161 / 66 / 60 or clemency.wells@reprieve.org.uk / donald.campbell@reprieve.org.uk  / alice.gillham@reprieve.org.uk

2. Reprieve Executive Director Clare Algar’s letter to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague is available on request.