Attorney General’s proposal ‘copies failed US drone programme’ – Reprieve

January 11, 2017

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According to reports, Attorney-General Jeremy Wright will today outline a Government proposal to re-define ‘imminence’ in relation to the UK’s ability to take strikes against individuals abroad.

Mr Wright will reportedly argue for a new definition of imminence that no longer requires either ‘evidence’ of where an attack will occur, or knowledge of what the ‘nature’ of that attack might be.

The proposals have raised fears that the Government is attempting to redefine a 180-year old legal rule for ‘pre-emptive’ self-defence, which states that military force may not be used in pre-emptive self-defence unless the threat of harm is ‘imminent.’ The principle was re-affirmed by the Nuremberg Tribunal after World War II.

Human rights organization Reprieve, which assists the civilian victims of drone strikes, raised concerns in September 2015 when the Government announced it had ordered a strike in Syria without parliamentary approval. An inquiry by the Joint Committee on Human Rights subsequently found the Government’s position demonstrated a “misunderstanding of the legal frameworks that apply” to the use of armed drones outside of warzones and that it “may expose… Ministers to the risk of criminal prosecution for murder.”

The UK has also faced criticism for its involvement in the US’ own covert drone programme, undertaken by secretive agencies such as the CIA utilizing both UK intelligence and UK bases. The programme is estimated to have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of civilians – all targeted under the same controversial definition of ‘imminence’ the UK is now proposing.

The covert US drone programme has been described as a “failed strategy” by General Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump’s nominee for the post of National Security Advisor, and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Obama.

Research by Reprieve in 2014 showed that for 41 named targets, covert strikes killed 1,147 men, women and children who were not targets; and that the intelligence behind the strikes was so poor that individuals had been targeted as many as ten times without success.

Commenting, Jennifer Gibson, who leads Reprieve’s work with the civilian victims of strikes – said:

“Throughout the discredited ‘War on Terror’, the US has tried to redefine language to avoid liability for human rights abuses. Mr. Wright has adopted the same strategy today. The British Government cannot unilaterally change international law because they want to assassinate people, any more than Donald Trump can bring back waterboarding.

“Britain is meant to be a leader when it comes to human rights. Yet Mr Wright is attempting to redefine the law to provide cover for the UK’s previous illegal actions. In doing so, he is taking the UK down the slippery slope of a failed US drone programme – one that has killed countless civilians, and done nothing to make us safer.”


Notes to editors

1. Reprieve is an international human rights organization. Reprieve’s London office can be contacted on: communications [at] / +44 (0) 207 553 8140. Reprieve US, based in New York City, can be contacted on Katherine [dot] oshea [at] / +1 917 855 8064.