We Must Have Proper Scrutiny Each Time the State Takes a Life Through Drone Strikes

10/05/2016 16:20 | Updated 10 May 2016

When the military killed Reyad Kahn, and Rahul Amin and one other with a drone strike in Raqqa in Syria, in August last year, the Prime Minister reported it to parliament as a "new departure". And the Defence Secretary said the government would be prepared to use drones to target and kill individuals who they believed were a threat to us - even in countries where we are not at war.

The Government have a duty to protect the lives of its citizens including from terrorist attacks. But the state killing someone "in cold blood" in a country where we are not in armed conflict is a serious issue.

No-one wants the government to stand around wringing their hands and failing to protect us when a terrorist, operating from abroad, is organising to kill people. But neither must the government be trigger-happy. If they are carrying out a pre-planned killing they need to act within the law.

So the Joint Committee on Human Rights recommends in our Report published today, that the government should be absolutely clear about the legal basis for their action and they must have independent scrutiny after our military kill someone in a country where we are not in "armed conflict".

When the government told us about the drone killing, they first said it was legal as it was in self-defence, to protect us from a terrorist attack. They then changed their argument and said it was legal because it was an overspill from our military action in Iraq which the House of Commons had voted to approve.

Our report urges the government to set out which legal framework they are operating under when they carry out a targeted killing. We support the rule of law which should apply to government as well as citizens. And we don't want to wait to find out whether it's legal or not when one of our military personnel find themselves worrying about being prosecuted for murder. (Murder is one of the only crimes where you can be prosecuted in this country even if the act took place abroad). The government owe it to our military personnel who are operating the remote controlled drones to be clear what the legal basis for the attack is.

And there needs to be proper scrutiny of every killing which the military carry out where we are not at war. When the police shoot someone here to prevent them killing people, it is automatically reported to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. That is not because it's assumed that they've done wrong but just in recognition that there needs to be proper scrutiny when the state takes a life. The same should happen if the life is taken in a country abroad where we are not at war. The Joint Committee on Human Rights suggests the Intelligence and Security Committee - who are MPs cleared by security checks to look at the most secret intelligence - should examine the intelligence and the operation of every killing by the military in an area where we are not at war.

But we find ourselves today in a new situation for which our long established legal frameworks were not designed. The line between war in the traditional sense and countering the crime of terrorism has been blurred by two developments: rapid technological advance, including drone technology, has transformed the nature of the threat from terrorism and the capacity to counter it; and the nature of armed conflict has changed, with the steady rise of non-state armed groups such as ISIL/Da'esh with the intent and capability to carry out terrorist attacks globally and aspirations without territorial limit. We are not the only country in this situation. Far from it. So our government should take a lead in the Council of Europe and the UN to review whether the current legal framework should be updated to take account of the new circumstances in which the government needs to protect us and yet still remain within the law.

Harriet Harman is the Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights