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Thursday, 25 October 2012

UK Drones

 UK’s Drone Operation In Afghanistan Is Expanding
By Countercurrents.org

With tax payers money the UK is going to expand its drone operations in Afghanistan while its citizens’ wellbeing is below financial crisis level. A “strange” state!
Nick Hopkins’ report said:   The UK is to double the number of armed RAF [Royal Air Force] "drones" flying combat and surveillance operations in Afghanistan and, for the first time, the aircraft will be controlled from terminals and screens in Britain. In the new squadron of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), five Reaper drones will be sent to Afghanistan. It is expected they will begin operations within six weeks. Pilots based at RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire will fly the recently bought American-made UAVs at a hi-tech hub built on the site in the past 18 months.
The UK's existing five Reaper drones have been operated from Creech air force base in Nevada because Britain has not had the capability to fly them from UK. After "standing up" the new squadron on October 19, 2012, the UK will soon have 10 Reapers in Afghanistan. The government has yet to decide whether the aircraft will remain there after 2014, when all NATO combat operations are due to end. "The new squadron will have three control terminals at RAF Waddington, and the five aircraft will be based in Afghanistan," a spokesman confirmed. "We will continue to operate the other Reapers from Creech though, in time, we will wind down operations there and bring people back to the UK."
The use of drones has become one of the most controversial features of military strategy in Afghanistan. The UK has been flying them almost non-stop since 2008. The CIA's program of "targeted" drone killings in Pakistan's tribal area was last month condemned in a report by US academics.
The most recent figures from the Ministry of Defense show that, by the end of September, the UK's five Reapers in Afghanistan had flown 39,628 hours and fired 334 laser-guided Hellfire missiles and bombs at suspected insurgents. While British troops on the ground have started to take a more back-seat role, the use of UAVs has increased over the past two years despite fears from human rights campaigners that civilians might have been killed or injured in some attacks. The RAF bought the drones as an urgent operational requirement (UOR) specifically for Afghanistan, and the MoD confirmed that their purpose after 2014 was unclear. Under rules imposed by the EU and the Civil Aviation Authority, UAVs can be flown only in certain places in the UK, including around the Aberporth airfield in mid-Wales.
If the air-exclusion zone restrictions are not lifted by the end of 2014, the UK may have to relocate the drones to the US, or perhaps even to Kenya, sources said.
In the first three-and-a-half years of using the Reapers in Afghanistan, the aircraft flew 23,400 hours and fired 176 missiles. But those figures have almost doubled in the past 15 months as NATO seeks to weaken the Taliban ahead of withdrawal.
The MoD insists only four Afghan civilians have been killed in its strikes since 2008 and says it does everything it can to minimize civilian casualties, including aborting missions at the last moment. However, it also says it has no idea how many insurgents have died because of the "immense difficulty and risks" of verifying who has been hit. The MoD says it relies on Afghans making official complaints at military bases if their friends or relatives have been wrongly killed – a system campaigners say is flawed and unreliable.
Heather Barr, a lawyer for Human Rights Watch, has said: "There are many disincentives for people to make reports.  "Some of these areas are incredibly isolated, and people may have to walk for days to find someone to report a complaint. For some, there will be a certain sense of futility in doing so anyway. There is no uniform system for making a complaint and no uniform system for giving compensation. This may not encourage them to walk several days to speak to someone who may not do anything about it."
In December 2010, David Cameron claimed that 124 insurgents had been killed in UK drone strikes. But defense officials said they had no idea where the prime minister got the figure and denied it was from the MoD.
A high court hearing on October 23, 2012 may shed light on any support the UK is giving to the CIA's campaign of drone strikes in Pakistan. The case has been brought by Noor Khan, whose father was killed in an attack on a local council meeting in 2011. He is asking the foreign secretary, William Hague, to clarify the government's position on sharing intelligence for use in CIA strikes, and is challenging the lawfulness of such activities. His lawyer, Rosa Curling, said: "This case is about the legality of the UK government providing 'locational intelligence' to the US for use in drone strikes in Pakistan.
An off-the-record GCHQ source stated that GCHQ assistance was being provided to the US for use in drone attacks and this assistance was 'in accordance with the law.' "We have advised our client that this is incorrect. The secretary of state has misunderstood the law on this extremely important issue and a declaration from the court confirming the correct legal position is required as a matter of priority."
On the high court hearing Ian Cobain reported:
The British government's support for US drone operations over Pakistan may involve acts of assisting murder or even war crimes, the high court heard on October 23, 2012. This is the first serious legal challenge in the English courts to the drones campaign.
Noor Khan, 27, is said to live in constant fear of a repeat of the attack in North Waziristan in March last year that killed more than 40 other people, who are said to have gathered to discuss a local mining dispute.
The British government has declined to state whether or not its signals intelligence agency GCHQ passes information in support of the CIA drone operations over Pakistan, although the court heard that media reports suggest that it does. Martin Chamberlain, counsel for Khan, said that a newspaper article in 2010 had reported that GCHQ was using telephone intercepts to provide the US authorities with locational intelligence on leading militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The report suggested that the Cheltenham-based agency was proud of this work, which was said to be "in strict accordance with the law".
On the contrary, Chamberlain said, any GCHQ official who passed locational intelligence to the CIA knowing or believing that it could be used to facilitate a drone strike would be committing a serious criminal offence. "The participation of a UK intelligence official in US drone strikes, by passing intelligence, may amount to the offence of encouraging or assisting murder," he said. Alternatively, it could amount to a war crime or a crime against humanity, he added. Chamberlain said that no GCHQ official would be able to mount a defense of combat immunity, but added that there was no wish in this case to convict any individual of a criminal offence. Rather, Khan was seeking a declaration by the civil courts that such intelligence-sharing is unlawful.
With the number of drone strikes increasing sharply under the Obama administration, the London case is one of several being brought by legal activists around the world in an attempt to challenge their legality of the program.
Niklas Asker
In Pakistan, lawyers and human rights activists are mounting two separate court claims: one is intended to trigger a criminal investigation into the actions of two former CIA officials, while the second is seeking a declaration that the strikes amount to acts of war, in order to pressurise the Pakistani air force into shooting down drones operating in the country's airspace.
During the two-day hearing in London, lawyers for Khan are seeking permission for a full judicial review of the lawfulness of any British assistance for the US drone program. Lawyers for William Hague, the foreign secretary, say not only that they will neither confirm nor deny any intelligence-sharing activities in support of drone operations, but that it would be "prejudicial to the national interest" for them even to explain their understanding of the legal basis for any such activities.
For Khan and his lawyers to succeed, they say, the court would need to be satisfied that there is no international armed conflict in Pakistan, with the result that anyone involved in drone strikes was not immune from the criminal law, and that there had been no tacit approval for the strikes from the Pakistan government – another matter that the British government will neither confirm nor deny. The court would also need to consider, and reject, the US government's own legal position: that drone strikes are acts of self-defense. It would also need to be satisfied that the handing over of intelligence amounted to participation in hostilities. The government also says that Khan's claim would have a "significant impact" on the conduct of the UK's relations with both the US and Pakistan in an "acutely controversial, sensitive and important" area, and also impact on relations between the US and Pakistan.
The case continues.
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