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Sophia Akram

Greater transparency on drones leads to further questions

The public have the right to know about drone technology and its deadly consequences [AFP]

Date of publication: 21 July, 2016

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Comment: While the US's steps towards greater transparency concerning its drone programme may appear disingenuous, the UK needs to start moving in a similar direction, writes Sophia Akram.

A recent report from the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), designed to present some transparency to the US drone programme, has met with cynicism while also being acknowledged as a step in the right direction.

The data states that 2,372-2,581 combatants and 64-116 non-combatants (civilians) were killed in 473 targeted killings in countries outside of hostilities where the US was an active party. However, these figures differed greatly from those collated by other monitors.

Appeasing the ACLU

NGOs have been pressuring the Obama Administration for years, to disclose the names and numbers of those killed under its controversial programme, and some might say the US had simply paid lip service to these calls. It has come under legal pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), while simultaneously preempting criticism of the numbers by claiming that NGOs simply do not appreciate facts on the ground.

A badly defined US policy

However, we know the disingenuity of such claims from ongoing exposure, not only through a process of counting the dead, but from leaked documents from whistleblowers who have been involved in the very same assassination programme.

Uncomfortable with the extra-judicial nature of state sanctioned death, the willingness of these whistleblowers to expose its mechanics and allow civil society scrutiny is itself telling of the dirty tactics involved in targeting high value enemies at the cost of human lives.

To some extent, these exposures can help to explain the gap in figures between official and independent estimates. For instance, a previous report by media outlet, The Intercept, based on leaked documents explains the civilian misnomer.

Despite claiming to be a precision weapon, the way drones are engaged makes human life all the more expendable

Protocol for accounting for the dead was firstly to label all of the deceased as enemies unless they could posthumously be proved to be civilians. In particular, all men of military age - otherwise known by the aptly dehumanising acronym, "MAMs" - were labelled as an EKIA - Enemy Killed in Action. Many of those would have been civilians as said in the report, but without the evidence they are not counted as such.

But why is the high number of EKIAs, or a disproportionate civilian death count so important? Despite claiming to be a precision weapon, the way drones are engaged makes human life all the more expendable. The Bureau for Investigative Journalists puts it this way:

"Many of those pursued are high value targets - senior or middle ranking terrorist or militant group commanders. Bluntly put, the higher the value of the target - and the greater the threat they represent to you - the more the laws of war allow you to put civilians in harm's way."

It's not just the legal question that remains cloudy but the fact that there is no UK drone policy in existence at all

Reprieve argue that it's not the numbers that aid the path towards transparency. The US government has never been straight about their programme and has repeatedly lied in the public domain on numerous issues around it. Previously they claimed that there had not been one civilian death, but again, this is at odds with independent reporting about actual drone strikes and the lives they've claimed.

Other leaked documents have also revealed that drone operators cannot be certain about who they are killing in a particular case, using "signature strikes", which target people based on their behaviour, rather than on actual identification.

Where is the UK policy?

So, while some figures are now forthcoming, the number of unanswered questions is also piling up. But the US is not developing drone strategies by themselves. Their drone programme is very much intertwined with other global players. The German airbase, Rammstein, for instance, was found to be used in the deployment of US drones and UK intelligence has been used to target high value enemies.

This involvement is troubling and its legal basis has been called into question, putting those involved at risk of being charged with little less than murder.

It's not just the legal question that remains cloudy but the fact that there is no UK drone policy in existence at all.

Drone strikes are treated as no different to any other type of airstrike and there appears to be no plans to develop a separate guiding document anytime soon. Numerous parliamentary questions have touched on this specific issue, and any question seeking to understand the substance of the matter is met with refusal, on the basis of security implications.

If the US is moving closer to a system of transparency, the UK is moving further away from it

This just simply isn't good enough, if the US is moving closer to a system of transparency, the UK is moving further away from it. Information must be provided to the bodies that are mandated to scrutinise government actions. If not in the public domain, then in the parliamentary one at the least.

Along with the straying from an environment of clarity, the UK is now stepping up its armed drone capability by procuring more Reapers - the armed model that the UK typically uses in hostile territories such as Afghanistan and Syria. It is also now providing its own domestic training programme for pilots having relied on US training in the past.

The public have a right to know about the advancing technology and its deadly consequences. It poses an increasing threat not just to civilians who may form part of the "collateral damage" of airstrikes far away, but because the technology is - as predicted - being adopted by common enemies such as IS.

If application in this area is flouting a thin and frayed line, then further proliferation needs to stop so we can establish exactly what we're dealing with, and lay down the rules of engagement.


Sophia Akram is a researcher and communications professional with a special interest in human rights particularly across the Middle East. Follow her on Twitter: @mssophiaakram

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff. 

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