Britain’s war – denials wear thin: defence secretary now acknowledges civilian killing by RAF

Britain is at war with more than 1600 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. Deborah Haynes, Defence Editor of the Times reports the killing of a civilian by RAF drone in Syria.

The air strike was by a Reaper drone, remotely operated by pilots in the UK or an airbase in the United States.

Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, has admitted that on March 26th, a British airstrike killed a motorcyclist who rode into its path in Syria by chance. It is the first confirmation of a civilian casualty by UK forces in the fight against Islamic State.

The unintentional death, described by Williamson as “deeply regrettable”, was confirmed during post-strike analyses of drone footage and other imagery.

The official position of the Ministry of Defence until yesterday’s announcement had been that it had seen no evidence of UK airstrikes causing civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria.

A source within the US-led coalition against Isis, however, told the BBC that he had seen evidence that British airstrikes had caused civilian casualties “on several occasions”. “To suggest they have not, as has been done, is nonsense,” the source added.

The coalition has begun an investigation and will issue a report. The airstrike was by a Reaper drone, remotely operated by pilots in the UK or at an airbase in the United States.

The defence secretary admits that RAF jets and drones have conducted more than 1,600 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq and Airwars, a group that has been monitoring civilian casualties, claimed it was likely that between 1,066 and 1,579 civilians had died in the fighting in Mosul. The US and Australia have accepted responsibility for civilian casualties. The coalition has admitted causing just over 350 civilian deaths in Mosul.

The deaths, in particular those of women and children, have helped to turn local populations against coalition forces and fuel insurgencies.

A Wimbledon reader sends news that Amnesty International has cited another civilian death: 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was picking vegetables in the family’s fields with her grandchildren in Waziristan, northwest Pakistan. ’Out of nowhere’, she was hit during a double drone strike led by the US. Mamana is one of hundreds of civilians accidentally killed by US drone strikes. Strikes that the UK has been playing a crucial part in.

Despite the lack of coverage in many newspapers and on TV bulletins, a petition has been set up, calling for the UK government to launch a full public inquiry into its role in the US’s expanding drones programme:

To join this call for a full public inquiry into Britain’s role in the US’s expanding drones programme, go to






Posted in Airstrikes, Armed drones, Civilian deaths, Drone strikes, Human rights, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, UK, US, US government | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

March visitors


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More than 3000 Google employees want company to drop Pentagon ‘war’ drone program

MarketWatch, which provides the latest stock market, financial and business news, reports that more than 3,000 Google employees have signed an open letter to management, published in the New York Times.

Citing the company motto, “Don’t be evil” the letter urges the company to pull out of a Pentagon program that uses artificial intelligence to aid with video imagery which could improve the targeting of drone strikes – Project Maven.

In a statement provided to MarketWatch, a Google spokesperson said: “An important part of our culture is having employees who are actively engaged in the work that we do. We know that there are many open questions involved in the use of new technologies, so these conversations – with employees and outside experts – are hugely important and beneficial. Maven is a well publicized DoD project and Google is working on one part of it – specifically scoped to be for non-offensive purposes and using open-source object recognition software available to any Google Cloud customer”.

The open letter (to CEO Sundar Pichai) is reproduced below:

Dear Sundar,

We believe that Google should not be in the business of war. Therefore we ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicize and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.Google is implementing Project Maven, a customized AI surveillance engine that uses “Wide Area Motion Imagery” data captured by US Government drones to detect vehicles and other objects, track their motions, and provide results to the Department of Defense.

Recently, Googlers voiced concerns about Maven internally. Diane Greene responded, assuring them that the technology will not “operate or fly drones” and “will not be used to launch weapons.” While this eliminates a narrow set of direct applications, the technology is being built for the military, and once it’s delivered it could easily be used to assist in these tasks.This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent. Amid growing fears of biased and weaponized AI, Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust. By entering into this contract, Google will join the ranks of companies like Palantir, Raytheon, and General Dynamics. The argument that other firms, like Amazon  are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google. Google’s unique history, its motto Don’t Be Evil, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart.

We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties. Google’s stated values make this clear: Every one of our users is trusting us. Never jeopardize that. Ever. This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values. Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance – and potentially lethal outcomes – is not acceptable.

Recognizing Google’s moral and ethical responsibility, and the threat to Google’s reputation, we request that you:

  1. Cancel this project immediately
  2. Draft, publicize, and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology

(end letter)

One of several admirable initiatives in Silicon Valley



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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?




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Our Special Friend increases executions without trial regardless of Yemen’s suffering

America’s NBC News reports on the increase in airstrikes soon after the Trump administration took office.

It declared parts of Yemen as well as neighbouring Somalia to be “areas of active hostilities,” giving the U.S. military more leeway to target terrorists from the air and on the ground without White House approval.

The first deadly and futile commando raid in Yemen after this policy change, cost the lives of a U.S. Navy SEAL and a number of children and yielded no significant intelligence, U.S. officials told NBC News. 7 US service members were wounded and at least 25 civilians were killed, including nine children under the age of 13, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The U.S. military stepped up its air campaign in Yemen dramatically, conducting 131 airstrikes – more than six times as many as the , 21 strikes in 2016, the last year of the Obama administration.

Airstrikes on a market and a farm in Yemen at the end of December killed at least 68 civilians in a single day, including eight children, the United Nations said on Thursday. At least 109 civilians had been killed nationwide during that two week period.

Yemenis suffer from dire shortages of electricity, food and medicine. The collapse has led to the world’s worst contemporary outbreak of cholera, which has killed over 2,200 and affected about a million people since April. And yet the bombardment continues. There have been at least 10 additional strikes since Jan. 1, 2018, carried out by drones, AC-130 gunships and fighter-bombers.

Will our next government choose our friends more carefully?





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UNA’s 16th annual Ruth Steinkraus-Cohen International Law Lecture is held in association with the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS University of London and the Bar Council of England and Wales.

As more countries and non-state actors deploy military drones, pressure increases to establish norms and international laws on their use. The high level of secrecy surrounding this will make that difficult. The necessary transparency will require agreement on legal and policy criteria for using UAVs, protocols on the authorisation and initiation of a drone strike, the reporting of civilian and combatant casualties as well as the decision-making process behind target selection. Further, should there be accountability and oversight measures in place for internal review?

Professor Akande is the Yamani Fellow at St. Peter’s College, Oxford, and Co-Director of the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict and a recognised expert on the use of armed drones and the attendant legal implications. In 2017 he commenced as legal adviser to the UK Parliament’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Drone’s Inquiry into the ways in which the UK works with partners on the use of drones and his 2016 co-authored piece “The International Legal Framework Regulating the Use of Armed Drones” in the International Comparative Law Quarterly (ICLQ) was selected for the International & Comparative Law Quarterly Annual Lecture 2017.

Thursday, 22 February 2018 from 18:30 to 20:00 (GMT)

Brunei Gallery SOAS

Thornhaugh Street

WC1H 0XG London

United Kingdom


Click on this link to book.




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Anglo Saxon alliance helps its ally to kill another 54 civilians – running amok?

Widely reported: on 26 December, airstrikes on a crowded popular market in Al Hayma sub-district in Attazziah district, Taizz Governorate led to at least 54 civilians being killed, including eight children, and 32 others injured including six children.

More than 350 high-profile figures including six Nobel peace prize laureates, former military generals, politicians, diplomats and celebrities have marked the 1,000th day of the Yemen civil war by calling on leaders of France, the US and the UK to stop “stoking the flames of war” and instead use their seats on the UN security council to act as peace brokers.

The Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Jamie McGoldrick, reports on Mounting Civilian Casualties (28 December 2017)

Initial reports from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) indicate that on 26 December, airstrikes on a crowded popular market in Al Hayma sub-district in Attazziah district, Taizz Governorate resulted in at least 54 civilians killed, including eight children, and 32 others injured including six children. During the past days, residential areas in Al Hayma villages, including a health unit occupied by Internally Displaced Persons, have been subject to a full blockade by the de facto authorities and indiscriminate shelling that resulted in casualties among the residents and displacement of many families to safer areas.

Also on 26 December, an airstrike on a farm in Attohayta District, Al Hudaydah Governorate resulted in the killing of 14 people from the same family. These new victims are in addition to 84 civilian casualties reported in the last 10 days, including 41 people killed, and 43 people injured by airstrikes in several governorates throughout Yemen.

These incidents prove the complete disregard for human life that all parties, including the Saudi-led Coalition, continue to show in this absurd war that has only resulted in the destruction of the country and the incommensurate suffering of its people, who are being punished as part of a futile military campaign by both sides.

I remind all parties to the conflict, including the Saudi-led Coalition, of their obligations under International Humanitarian Law to spare civilians and civilian infrastructure and to always distinguish between civilian and military objects.

As the conflict in which civilians have borne the brunt marks 1000 days, I once again remind all parties that it has no military solution. There can only be a political solution.

So says Jamie McGoldrick, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and all humane and sensible people.




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