Immoral, unethical and illegal? Military action in areas where the UK is not formally at war

Mark Shapiro draws attention to a contribution from Emily Knowles, who leads the Oxford Research Group’s Remote Warfare Programme.

In the introduction to her report (right) she writes: “ One of the major warnings from the Iraq Inquiry was that public trust in politics had been damaged through misrepresentation of facts by the government”.

This research suggests that there is a rising trend of secretive military commitments in areas where the UK is not considered to be at war:

“Instead of deploying regular British troops to the front lines, increasingly it is British Special Forces who can be found on the ground, with the UK’s armed drone fleet, intelligence agencies, and military advisers and trainers also playing important roles. This is light-footprint remote warfare, which can take place on the front lines or with the UK in a supporting role”. The ORG report recommendations include:

  • The government should publish its policy surrounding its use of targeted killings.
  • The no comment policy on Special Forces should be amended so that the government can provide unclassified briefings that would not reasonably endanger any operation or personnel.
  • The government should clarify the terms under which embedded personnel are authorised to take part in the active combat operations of allies.
  • The government should release a Consolidated Guidance on the provision of intelligence for allied drone strikes.

Do these go far enough? If implemented they would still allow the extrajudicial killing of opponents and civilians alike

Emily acknowledges the expertise which the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham has shared with the ORG. The Birmingham Policy Commission earlier published, “The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK” (left, University of Birmingham, October 2014, summary and final report). It concluded at the end of its ground-breaking review: “…there is one theme that has recurred in all our deliberations as a Commission … it is the need for clearer, more forthcoming public communication and transparency on the part of the UK government, and the MoD in particular. Without this, the essential and immediate groundwork for the long-term policy choices…cannot be laid.”

Trump and the reduction of transparency

The Bureau of Investigation study by Jessica Purkiss and Abigail Fielding-Smith (March 14 2018) records that, towards the end of the Obama administration, US military officials had begun to communicate in a more transparent way with the Bureau about their counter terrorism campaigns. For over a year, the Bureau received detailed monthly reports on air strikes in Afghanistan, broken down into different types of strike. Then the Pentagon’s Central Command (CENTCOM) announced its intention to launch a monthly tally of strikes in Yemen but this practice was abandoned shortly after President Donald Trump entered office.

By the end of 2017 officials from NATO’s Resolute Support, the US mission in Afghanistan, said the Bureau would have to rely on data simply showing the number of weapons released in Afghanistan, which provides a much less clear picture of the war. They explained that they no longer wanted to give so much detail to the enemy.

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks with President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence following a meeting of the National Security Council at the Pentagon, July 20, 2017

On 1 March 2018, the Air Force ordered an overhaul of its public affairs operations. Its guidance, which was obtained by Defense News, said: “In line with the new National Defense Strategy, the Air Force must hone its culture of engagement to include a heightened focus on practicing sound operational security. As we engage the public, we must avoid giving insights to our adversaries that could erode our military advantage.”

Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, called the new practice “deeply disturbing . . . It hides the costs and consequences of US lethal force from the public in whose name the military conducts operations” She adds that civilians who are wrongly or mistakenly harmed say it is the absence of transparency and accountability that weighs most heavily on them (Ed: presumably less so than their injuries and the death of family members and neighbours).

In October 2017, Emily Knowles joined a panel of practitioners, activists and academics to reflect upon the ethics of armed conflict and the legality, morality and strategic implications of the Reaper Drone ten years after its introduction to active service in the UK.

The event was hosted by the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham. A short video about the event which can be viewed below shows a measured dispassionate approach to what amounts to execution without trial. The late, great Professor John Ferguson (left), ‘a committed Christian pacifist’,  would have wished the Centre for the Study of Global Ethics (University of Birmingham) and Dr Heather Widdows, who holds the John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics at the centre, to have participated in this event

CGSE was set up to address the key ethical issues of our time.

Is not ‘remote killing’ – aka drone warfare – a key ethical issue of our time?




This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Civilian deaths, International law, Iraq, NATO, Pentagon, President Obama, UK, Yemen and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Immoral, unethical and illegal? Military action in areas where the UK is not formally at war

  1. Pingback: ‘Remote killing’: academics offer cold comfort for Yemenis | Our Birmingham

  2. Pingback: Immoral, unethical and illegal? Military action in areas where the UK is not formally at war |

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