ALDE Congress passes UK Liberal Democrat motion calling for a halt to drone attacks

On 28th, 29th, and 30th Nov, the Annual Congress of European liberal parties in the European Parliament and beyond, (ALDE) met in London. The ‘pan-European’ liberal manifesto was agreed for the upcoming Euro elections, (no mean feat !), and several other resolutions were passed.

The UK Lib Dems had one motion on the agenda. This was an emergency motion on armed drone attacks, put forward following new on-the-ground data from the UN and others on civilians being killed, and following a European defence meeting which failed to address the illegality of the attacks, instead focusing on the capacity of ‘Europe’ to build better armed drones. In addition the UN Secretary General had recently indicated that US drone strikes in Pakistan were unlawful.

The wording of the motion is below. It was passed with an overwhelming majority.

The European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party convening in London, UK, 28th  to 30th November 2013,

Notes with concern

  • That the Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism found that out of 2200 fatalities determined by the Pakistani Government to have arisen from 330 known US drone strikes since 2004, at least 600 civilians and ‘probable non-combatant’ fatalities have been identified. Significant such fatalities have also been reported during investigations of potential  civilian deaths from drone strikes in 6 other countries.
  • The UN report criticised the practice of WUAV attacks being targeted, operated and assisted on the ground by civilian intelligence officers or contractors, outside of the parameters placed on state combatants operating within rules of command and relevant international law & customs
  • The October 2013 Amnesty International Report on civilian deaths from WUAV attacks documents individual drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere by the USA, and concludes that attacks are in breach of international law


  • The 15 October 2013 report by the EU High Representative/EDA on the Common Security and Defence Policy, which proposed that European governments should commit to cooperative projects in WUAVs and the European Defence Agency Steering Board meeting on 19th November 2013 formulating European drones policy for the period 2020-25.

Believes that

  • That international law has yet to catch up with technology in the area of armed drones
  • The current legal justifications for US drones strikes in various parts of the world lack clarity and robustness
  • The lack of robust legal justification for international WUAV attacks could accelerate a WUAV arms race and a race for counter-WUAV measures, thereby increasing the likelihood of armed conflict around the globe

Calls on

  • The EU to take all steps necessary through institutions in the UN system to bring to a halt to unlawful WUAV attacks and promote the development of

– an international WUAV treaty

– the extension of the scope of the Arms Trade Treaty to include unmanned conventional arms

  • The EU to conduct an enquiry into the lawfulness of specific WUAV deployment practices including the use of ‘kill lists’, ‘personality strikes’, ‘signature strikes’, ‘double taps’ and terrorist attack disruption strikes (TADS), and into published reports of the accuracy problems with such weapons.

* Paul Reynolds works with multilateral organisations as an independent adviser on international relations, economics, and senior governance. He is a member of the Lib Dem Federal International Relations Committee and an Executive member of Liberal International (British Group).

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  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Dec '13 - 4:53pm

    We should be careful not to sound populist or pacifist when it comes to drone striking. This is a very sensitive area and we need to make clear that the problem is international law and innocent deaths – not the fact the US have developed a powerful new weapon that saves both of our soldiers and citizens from injury or death.

    We need to start with the first principles of the problem, which are innocent deaths, not drones.

    Best wishes

  • Paul Reynolds 3rd Dec '13 - 9:45pm

    Thank you Eddie – and indeed others may have similar opinions, and it is a good point. However, neither the UK Libdem ALDE motion, nor its accompanying preamble and briefings, call for a ban on armed drones – indeed they are weapons of war like any other, (notwithstanding the ‘moral’ argument about people at war but sitting in the comfort of a remote drone control centre well away from the battlefield). The motion is about legal arguments by the US and others that drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, etc are permitted under international law – arguments which are believed to be insufficient (ref the UN Secretary General and likely to lead to global impunity for such drone attacks)… to the extent that ‘the legalities are being fixed around the policy’. One should also not forget that the majority of targets in Pakistan are not known – they are killed for ‘patterns of behaviour’ observed from the air rather than being actual named members of Al Qaeda and affiliates – one reason why there appear to be more civilian deaths than ‘target’ deaths. Thus those on kill lists signed by Obama are in a minority of targets.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Dec '13 - 10:35pm

    “notwithstanding the ‘moral’ argument about people at war but sitting in the comfort of a remote drone control centre well away from the battlefield”

    I don’t think that moral argument deserves any credence and what I feared this was really about. The argument that the United States should switch from unmanned to manned aircraft, not to protect more innocent lives or kill more terrorists, but to risk more of their soldiers lives is absolutely ridiculous and infuriating.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Dec '13 - 10:48pm

    There should also be no halt to them, just a speeding up of international law reforms.

  • Eddie Sammon 3rd Dec '13 - 10:52pm

    I’m just completely disgusted that this is a UK Liberal Democrat and ALDE motion. These are violent extremists who need to be stopped and UK Liberal Democrats think the ones that need to be stopped are the United States for protecting their soldiers lives by using unmanned aircraft, rather than manned.

  • A Social Liberal 4th Dec '13 - 12:12am

    *The motion covers a fair point. Is it alright for one country to invade anothers airspace in order to kill its citizens. Would we want it to happen in the UK? Would the US have stood by and let China use a UAV to take out the Tsarnaev brothers.

    *Terrorists are committing illegal acts and therefore should be prosecuted under the rule of law. This is how we do it in the UK – when PIRA murderers hid in Eire we found out where they were and got the Irish government to arrest them and extradite them. When the US refused to extradite the terrorists Artt, Kirkby and Brennan we didn’t attempt to summarily execute them – why shouldn’t the US be subject to the same contraints.

    *If Pakistan so wished it could stop the drone strikes at a stroke. Predators and Reapers have no evasive capability whilst the Pakistanis have adequate air to air capabilities. It would be the simplest of tasks to fly close to the WUAV to identify it and then expend a few machine gun rounds on it. It is telling that they don’t.

  • Eddie Sammon 4th Dec '13 - 12:17am

    “The lack of robust legal justification for international WUAV attacks could accelerate a WUAV arms race and a race for counter-WUAV measures, thereby increasing the likelihood of armed conflict around the globe”

    This is the stated principle of ALDE that I do not agree with. Here you are saying that because soldiers lives are not at risk they increase the risk of armed conflict. This is wrong and says that we should not be protecting our soldiers safety as best we can, no matter which way you try to say you are not saying this, this is what you are saying.

    This is why this is such a sensitive area and ALDE are wrong to produce this statement.

    Ethical arguments against weapons of mass destruction are completely different because they are more likely to hurt civilians, but this principle argues against the merits of protecting soldiers safety, which is not only wrong for obvious reasons, but also affects soldiers morale, which affects national security and the wellbeing of our soldiers.

  • Paul Reynolds 4th Dec '13 - 10:42am

    Thank you Eddie for your clearly strongly-held views. Your synthesis of the ALDE motion motives behind it are at odds with the reality – it would indeed be inadvisable from a UK security point of view to base defence policy solely on moral arguments. The ‘moral’ arguments you refer to are merely acknowledged in the article since they form the basis of the views of many Libdems and others. No opinion is expresed on the valudity of such moral arguments. The UK is one of only 3 countries that have made international drone attacks…Israel and the US being the other two. However China, Russia, Iran and many other countries possess or manufacture armed drones. In order to establish rules for their use, as there are for many other weapons, it is in the UK national interest to ensure that we and our allies are in compliance with international law, and to ensure that armed drones strikes, when their use is necessary, are conducted lawfully…and we should press our allies to do the same. What goes around comes around and we may military regret playing fadt and loose with international law over allied drone strikes. In addition military force has a political aim and all conflicts are ultimately resolved politically. Current practice, especially signature strikes, TADs and ‘double taps’ create such public hostility that our ability to reach political settlements is severely hamprred to the detriment of the populations we are trying to help and allied interests we are trying to pursue.

  • What Eddie Sammon is saying in his third post is that international law should be changed (reformed) to make these operations explicitly legal because they 1. kill bad people and, 2. reduce casualties. This doesnt address the ethical problems of collateral casualties.
    But to address the question whether drone technology is inherently undesirable: Any technology which allows a combatant to act aggressively without risk is likely to be used more frequently (eg: Tasers) and is likely to lead to them being used counter-productively. There is a good ethical (teleological) argument that assasinating people who have been or may in the future be combatants when they are outside your jurisdiction is wrong because it erodes international law.

  • Paul Reynolds 4th Dec '13 - 10:57am

    In order to understand better why armed drone strikes provoke such hostility among ordinary Afganis and Pakistanis it is important to point out that strikes against named, known alleged Al Qaeda members (ie those engaged allegedly in a global conflict with the US and allies) represent a tiny proportion of overall numbers of strikes. The vast majority of strikes are in effect contributions to assist the two government in internal conflict. Such assistance in principle may be reasonable but such drone attacks across international borders are of dubious legality especially when the Pakistani gvernment has formally advised the UN that it has not consented to such international attacks.

  • jedibeeftrix 4th Dec '13 - 2:24pm
  • Eddie Sammon 4th Dec '13 - 5:43pm

    Paul, thanks for your civility. I completely understand and agree with concern about civilian casualties.

    Regarding international law: I think it is generally the job of law to catch up with technology.

    Regarding infringing on Pakistan’s sovereignty: I think they seem fairly OK with what is happening and I think this is moral under the right of self defence if a nation’s police force isn’t tackling terrorism sufficiently themselves.

    Of course, all actions of self of self defence should be proportionate to the risk.

  • Paul Reynolds 5th Dec '13 - 11:04am

    Eddie wrote – ‘Regarding international law: I think it is generally the job of law to catch up with technology.’

    Indeed this is a fair point and it is stated similarly in the ALDE motion. But it is perhaps more true of telecom regulation than the Laws of War. The danger I would like to flag here is that it has been used as a kind of last-resort justification for the killing of civilians, and the killing of those whose identities are not known but which are merely suspected of being potentially in armed opposition to foreign governments that we support – Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, TFG South Central Somalia, Libya, Mali – based merely on observations of behaviours from cameras on drones and satellites. (The latter account for the large majority of drone strikes and run contrary to existing international rules).

    To say such fatal international attacks are only controversial in international law because the technology has not caught up yet, is a dangerous argument. For example, if in a race-hate crime someone kills a child on a London street with a new type of taser, can the murderer claim that it is only seen as an alleged crime because the law has not yet caught up with the technology ??

  • Paul Reynolds 5th Dec '13 - 11:08am

    Oh and thanks Eddie for comment on civility.

    I am so civil than in the Mid East my Nom de Guerre is ‘Abu Chokran’.

    Only joking !

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Dec '13 - 6:15pm

    Lol! I had to google Chokran to see that it meant thanks, but I get it!

    I and many others would be fine with some moderate reforms on the use of drones. Those on the right are afraid that the left is going to give the upper hand to the Taliban whereas those on the left are afraid that the right are being overly aggressive and in fact possibly making the situation worse. I think both fears need to be nurtured during such debates and actions.

  • The problem with drones is simple, they do not have capacity to distinguish between targets and non-combatants.

    No one wishes for more of our soldiers to die, but they signed up to the risk.

    The ‘inconvenient’ innocents we have murdered did not!

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