Summary execution by drone could have come straight out of an Orwell sequel

MQ-9 Reaper An MQ-9 Reaper, which the RAF used to kill two ISIS fighters originally from Britain © US Air Force photo

If George Orwell was writing this century instead of last, I imagine it would have been a shorter book. Surely in 2084, we wouldn’t have got past half a dozen chapters before the narrator was summarily executed from the air by a remote control drone.

The use of drones is so reminiscent of sci-fi dystopian fiction that it’s difficult to conceive they are actually a feature of the present. But they are and their use is now out of the closet. Just a few weeks ago, the Pentagon revealed that it plans to increase its use of drones by around 50% over the next few years.

Then, yesterday as Amnesty staff were tuning in to hear how many Syrian refugees the UK will resettle from the camps (20,000 a good start, and a vast improvement on the mere 200 we have taken to safety over the past two years) we were all surprised to hear Prime Minister David Cameron add a small ‘ps’ addendum to his parliamentary address.

PS, he said, we have also executed some British citizens in Syria by remote-control-drone strike, in a country we’re not engaged in a war with for the first time in our history, but rest assured there was evidence and it was legal.

A pretty substantial post script. The Prime Minister was keen to shrug this off as perfectly legal, but since the debunking of 45-minute-away-WMD claims the British parliament, and indeed public, are less inclined to take these assurances of threat at face value.

So what is the legal position? International law prohibits arbitrary killing and limits the lawful use of intentional lethal force to exceptional situations. In armed conflict, only combatants and people directly participating in hostilities may be directly targeted. Outside armed conflict, intentional lethal force is lawful only when strictly unavoidable to protect against an imminent threat to life. In some circumstances arbitrary killing can amount to a war crime or extrajudicial executions, which are crimes under international law.

Today, as the dust settles commentators have started to mull over whether a claim to legality can be substantiated. Amnesty, like others, would like to see the attorney general address parliament to explain the legal rational behind the strike in Syria. That would be only the start of what we would consider necessary scrutiny in a case which sets such an ominous precedent.

The Sun’s thoughtful headline ‘Wham! Bam! Thankyou Cam’ left no room for confusion on their editorial stance.  Whilst that sort of dog-whistle journalism might not even attempt to  capture the nuance of the debate, it does perhaps speak to one of the red-herring diversions in contemplating how justifiable this action can be seen to be.

When I tweeted last night about Amnesty’s alarm at the news that the UK has been conducting summary executions from the air, I was met with a barrage of replies. A large number of those replies said simply; these people deserved to die.

The principle of the rule of law does not require the subject to be likeable in order to be protected by it. Indeed, it is obviously most necessary when they are not. Security is a justifiable aim of any government and it is clear that we are talking about people who frankly revel in jeopardising that security.

But the legal question is this: is the threat they pose to the UK, from Syria, one that can justify the suspension of the rule of law and the dismissal of the very concept of accountable justice?

If we allow this to become the norm, countries all over the world could conduct aerial executions of perceived enemies on the basis of secret, unchallengeable evidence. Would we honestly be so relaxed if this was an announcement from Moscow, or Beijing, or Pyongyang or Oceania?

We are told our government would not hesitate to carry out a similar drone strike should they deem it necessary. I am sure that was intended to be reassuring. But as we hurtle down this slippery slope into a real-life Orwellian sequel, hesitation, sounds to me to be entirely appropriate.

A longer version of this blog was first published on Huffington Post.

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