The Government must urgently clarify the legal basis for its policy on launching drone strikes against Islamic State terrorists, a committee of senior parliamentarians has said.
The cross-party group of MPs and peers said despite the Government’s insistence that it did not have a “targeted killing” policy, it was clear that the UK was prepared to use lethal force overseas for counter-terrorism purposes.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) accepted that the drone strike which killed British jihadi Reyaad Khan in August 2015 was part of the armed conflict against IS in Iraq and Syria and covered by the Law of War.
But chairwoman Harriet Harman said the Government had not been “crystal clear” about the legal basis for the killing of Khan in Syria and the committee raised wider concerns about the potential use of drones in other parts of the world where IS is active.
The Prime Minister said the strike against Khan was a “new departure” when he revealed details of the operation in September 2015, before MPs had voted on extending the fight against IS into Syria.
But the JCHR said the UK Permanent Representative to the UN said the action had been taken in the collective self-defence of Iraq.
The committee continued: “We accept that the drone strike in Syria was part of that wider armed conflict in which the UK was already engaged, to which the Law of War applies, and that the Government therefore did not use lethal force outside of armed conflict when it targeted and killed Reyaad Khan on 21 August.
“However, our inquiry has also confirmed what the Prime Minister appeared to tell the House of Commons on 7 September: that it is the Government’s policy to be willing to use lethal force abroad, outside of armed conflict (in Libya, for example), against individuals suspected of planning an imminent terrorist attack against the UK, as a last resort, when there is no other way of preventing the attack.”
Ms Harman said: “When dealing with an issue of such grave importance, taking a life in order to protect lives, the Government should have been crystal clear about the legal basis for this action from the outset. They were not.”
She called for the establishment of “a new international consensus on when it is acceptable for a state to take a life outside of armed conflict”.