Rapporteur says MoD has no wish to bring squadron of unmanned aircraft back to Britain after Afghan campaign ends
Britain’s squadron of Reaper drones is likely to be redeployed to Africa and the Middle East rather than returned to the UK, a UN official has said.
Ben Emmerson QC, the UN rapporteur monitoring counter-terrorist operations by unmanned aircraft, whose report on armed drone operations around the world will be published on Tuesday, said he believed the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had no wish to bring the drones back once the Afghan campaign ends, in December.
In an interview with the Guardian, Emmerson said he had been told the RAF’s fleet of 10 Reaper drones, operated remotely via satellite from a ground station at RAF Waddington, in Lincolnshire, would remain overseas once they were withdrawn from Afghanistan.
Strict Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) rules prevent them from flying beyond the sight of the operator on the ground in UK skies, apart from inside a few restricted test areas.
Emmerson’s 21-page study, for the UN’s human rights council, examines targeted killings in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Gaza and Somalia.
Among its main findings is a dramatic reduction in US drone strikes in Pakistan as control is passed from the CIA to the US defence department. It also gives details of how Israel’s “knock on the roof” warnings have failed to prevent children and noncombatants being killed.
Speaking about where the UK’s drones will be based, Emmerson said: “My understanding is that the plan is to deploy them to parts of Africa and the Middle East where they can be used for surveillance … over a wide range of territory [in conflicts] where one party is a jihadist group.
“The way the matter has been explained to me by senior sources close to the MoD, the current plan for the drones is Africa and the Middle East, where they can be quickly deployed into situations of tension.”
The drones could be based in countries such as Nigeria or Djibouti, he suggested. “I would be surprised if they were not thinking about returnees from Syria so they can monitor the axis of jihadist violence,” he said.
Emmerson – whose full title is UN rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism – visited central Africa in the aftermath of the French intervention against jihadist groups in Mali.
“There were no armed drones used in the conflict in Mali,” he said. “That was considered [by military officials] a severe deficiency in capabilities. The French didn’t have any and the US didn’t have any armed ones. “
The MoD said no decisions on redeploying the RAF’s drones had yet been taken. A spokesman said: “At present, there are no plans to deploy UK unmanned air systems anywhere other than Afghanistan. Decisions about future basing of these assets, once operations in Afghanistan conclude, are likely to be taken later this year.”