A senior British government minister has lambasted Barack Obama's policy of using drone strikes against Taliban and al Qaida leaders in Pakistan, adding that current international law is unfit to handle the technological advances represented by the unmanned aircraft.
Liberal Democrat Ed Davey, who sits in the Cabinet as energy secretary, said that the use of drones to strike targets in Pakistan "transgressed the sovereignty" of the country, while accusing the US military of setting a "very dangerous precedent".
Speaking on the BBC’s Question Time, Davey said: "On drones I think there's a serious question we have got to face up to. Because I think if the Americans keep using drones in the way that they have been doing everyone is going to say this is setting a very, very dangerous precedent."
A NASA Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone aircraft
The minister added that the UN and the international community should look very seriously at these weapons as they are “transgressing sovereignty, in the case that we know about America, the sovereignty of Pakistan.”
"And while drones can be, if they are not being used in a military way,” he continued, “used for surveillance in a very effective way, and that's how the British use them, I think there are some real serious issues, (about) the international law of the use of drones and the American government is beginning to look at that."
However, Davey's suggestion that British drones are only used for surveillance runs contrary to recently published Ministry of Defence figures that show the UK’s unmanned fleet flew 892 missions in 2012, with the aircraft firing weapons on 10% of those sorties. The incidents in which missile were fired are believed to have been on missions in Afghanistan, with ministers insisting that British drones are not used to carry out operations in Pakistan.
In a recently published report by Amnesty International, the charity accused the US government of committing war crimes in Pakistan, while calling on the UK government to refrain from participating in US drone strikes that violate international law, including by the sharing of intelligence or facilities, or the transfer of specialist components.
A campaign to force the British government to disclose the full extent of British drone use in Afghanistan was recently thwarted after a protracted legal battle.
Davey continued: "There are strict rules of international engagement and conflict. My concern with drones is that the international law has not caught up with them and it must do, so that people who are using these types of technology actually have to abide by the law."
He added: "Americans in their armed forces are saying 'we have got to make sure that we don't set a precedent so other countries start doing what we're doing with drones because that would be very dangerous'."
On Thursday it was reported that the incoming German government had cancelled the purchase of unmanned drones, saying "we categorically reject illegal killings by drones".
Davey said that international law has not kept up with the technological advances of drones
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Last month two United Nations human rights investigators called for more transparency from the United States and other countries about their drone strikes programme. Ben Emmerson and Christof Heyns, who presented two reports on the subject at the UN, also called on other countries to speak up about when deadly drone strikes are acceptable.
They said the lack of consensus risked creating anarchy as more countries acquired the technology. Emmerson, the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism, said the US justified some drone strikes against terrorist targets in other countries by arguing that it was engaged in an armed conflict with al Qaida with no boundaries.
He said other countries disagreed with that analysis but few had spelled out their own positions. ''We all recognise that the moment other states start to use this technology in similar ways, we are facing a situation which could escalate into a breakdown of peace and security,'' he said.
In his report, Emmerson said he received statistics from the Pakistani government indicating that at least 2,200 people had been killed in drone strikes in that country since 2004, at least 400 of whom were civilians.