The Blog

On Drones, Britain Must Heed The Warnings Of A US Federal Judge

British judges and lawmakers should now feel emboldened to take the UK Government to task over its complicity in the drone programme. Accountability and transparency are needed now more than ever.
MOHAMAD ABAZEED via Getty Images

American democracy is broken and drone strikes are the symptom; so said a Bush appointed US Federal Judge last week.

She was handing down judgment in a case brought by Faisal bin Ali Jaber, a Yemeni environmental engineer who lost his brother-in-law and his nephew in a 2012 US drone strike. Faisal's relatives, Salem bin Ali Jaber and Waleed bin Ali Jaber, were back in their native village of Khashamir for a wedding. Salem was an anti Al-Qaeda imam while Waleed was a police officer. In August 2012, after Salem had preached against Al-Qaeda, three men came to Khashamir, asking to speak to him. Concerned these men were militants, Salem asked Waleed to accompany him to the meeting. As the five of them sat down outside the local mosque, a US drone launched a barrage of Hellfire missiles, killing them all.

Faisal does not want money from this case. Yemeni authorities already handed him a plastic bag full of unmarked American greenbacks. At first he refused the offer. He did not want a shady pay-off. He later accepted after elders in his village explained the victims' families were badly struggling.

He does want justice: an apology and a finding that the strike was unlawful. Last week, US judges said they could not grant his simple request. Yet, in doing so, one of them, Judge Brown, uttered some of the most stinging criticism of the US drone programme to date. Judge Brown called drone strikes an "outsized power" while questioning who still stands to keep them in "check". She does not think Congress is up to the task, calling their oversight a "joke -- and a bad one at that". She exhorts Congress and the Government to establish "a clear policy for drone strikes and precise avenues for accountability." Reading through the lines, the judgment is best summarised as follows: "This is an outrage, but the law binds me."

Judge Brown's critique has global reach. In Britain, there is mounting evidence of UK involvement in US assassinations. A former CIA official said that the UK takes part in preparing "target packages", "hits" and sits in a joint operations room with the US in Yemen. The Intercept reported that RAF Menwith Hill, a base in Yorkshire staffed by 600 British personnel serves as the eyes and ears of the programme.

By warning of diplomatic Armageddon, the UK Government has-so far--persuaded our courts that they have no business in scrutinising how the UK helps the US assassinate people around the world.

Yet Judge Brown's powerful rebuke to the assassination game, surely blows this argument out of the water. Invoking "civilizational peril" and lamenting the consequences for American credibility around the globe she concludes "It is up to others to take it from here". British judges and lawmakers should now feel emboldened to take the UK Government to task over its complicity in the drone programme. Accountability and transparency are needed now more than ever.

The new US President, Donald Trump, has drastically increased drone strikes. Trump's failed adventures in Yemen have led to the death of children and even a US Navy SEAL. With the stroke of a pen, Trump has discarded Obama's much vaunted safeguards, highlighting the dangers of unchecked lethal powers in the hands of the few. The programme was never a sound way to combat terrorism in the hands of Obama. In Trump's hands, it's a disaster.

The strike that killed Faisal's relatives is a prime example of how counterproductive the drone programme is. It is killing the people America needs to support in order to defeat extremism. This struggle will not be won by killing all those we deem threats. When we make mistakes, no matter how small in number, others step into the breach. In Yemen, the number of Al Qaeda members tripled between 2009 and 2012, at the height of Obama's covert drone campaign. Our efforts against terrorism will only succeed if we stay true to our principles, including the rule of law and democracy.

Judge Brown reminded us that when we jettison our values, it is not just distant Yemenis who suffer. The foundations of our society are also imperilled. It's high time we abandoned this failed programme and turned to more effective and sustainable ways of countering terrorism.