The Birmingham Policy Commission (BPC), chaired by Sir David Omand and coordinated by UNA-UK advisor Professor Nicholas Wheeler, has released its report “The Security Impact of Drones” exploring the issues that confront the UK Government in the development, regulation and use of drones and killer robots. 

UNA-UK is pleased to have contributed to the report and to see that, after close scrutiny of the issues, many of the conclusions reached by the Commission are aligned with UNA-UK’s stance.

On drones, the Commission echoes UNA-UK’s call for the UK to “articulate a clear, distinctive position”, which Omand described in a Telegraph article as “the most far-reaching message” to come out of the BPC. 

Questioning whether lethal autonomous weapons (so-called killer robots) could ever be developed with the “proportionality necessary for compliance with international humanitarian law”, the report reinforces UNA-UK’s work in encouraging “international consensus on the regulation – or even prohibition” of these systems.

The report includes the following recommendations on UK action.

  • The UK should articulate a clear policy on drones and help build international consensus on this issue, particularly with regards to the application of international law to the use of armed drones outside conflict zones and greater transparency in drone operations. 
  • The UK should work to clarify the relative applicability of international human rights law and international humanitarian law in complex conflicts. The UK position on the application of existing international law to the use of armed force should be in line with resulting international opinion.
  • The UK should support increased use of surveillance drones in peacekeeping operations. (This recommendation was included in UNA-UK’s submission to the Commission, and is part of the Association’s peacekeeping programme)
  • The UK should lead by example in providing its RPA capability for military assistance and humanitarian purposes. It should support the UN in becoming able to authorise routinely the use of RPA in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations for situational awareness. It should also support the Security Council in being prepared to consider authorising the use of armed RPA to protect civilians in operations under Chapter VII of the UN Charter.
  • The (hoped-for) end of the post 9/11 US campaign against al-Qaeda and associated groups should also end the US’s use of armed RPA for targeted killing outside areas of recognised armed conflict, thus enabling the US and its NATO allies to develop a common position on the lawful use of armed RPA. The UK should play a leading role in creating this NATO consensus, drawing on the work of the UN Special Rapporteurs and others within the wider community in the engagement of this question.
  • The UK should play a leading role in encouraging discussions on the regulation of lethal autonomous weapons at meetings of the parties to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons at the UN in Geneva. 

The report makes reference to an event UNA-UK organised on behalf of the UN All Party Parliamentary Group, with UN Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson and Professor Michael Clarke, Director General of RUSI. At the meeting, the speakers discussed the following with Parliamentarians:

The report also mentions Emmerson’s remarks on UK/US intelligence sharing, specifically that the nature of the relationship makes it “inevitable” that UK intelligence will have been used by the US to inform its controversial CIA-led drones operations – operations that appear incompatible with the UK’s approach to drone use.

UNA-UK was disappointed that the UK didn’t take the opportunity to engage more constructively with a recent UN Human Rights Council panel discussion on armed drones. In a letter to the panel, UNA-UK called for follow up action from the Human Rights Council given the lack of UK response to the questions posed by Emmerson.