Where’s the democratic consent for using British drones in Africa? | Chris Cole

There has been no public debate about redeploying drones used in Afghanistan – and requests for information are simply being refused

The UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson QC, has revealed that the Ministry of Defence is planning to deploy British Reaper drones to Africa and the Middle East after British forces are withdrawn from Afghanistan at the end of the year. He told the Guardian: “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.”

This will no doubt come as shock to many. There has been no discussion or debate about a new military intervention, either in parliament or among the public. Indeed, after last summer’s vote against possible military intervention in Syria it has been forecast that the withdrawal from Afghanistan would bring to an end more than a century of warfare by British forces around the globe.

It is no doubt just a coincidence that last week the incoming head of Africom (the US Africa Command), General David Rodriguez, lobbied the Senate armed services committee for more drones and resources.

This development highlights a key issue with the growing use of military unmanned systems: they make military intervention much easier for politicians. Political leaders know intervention comes at a cost. The public do not like to see young men and women who have been sent overseas by politicians come back seriously injured or in body bags. While there has been increasing support among the public for British forces, reflected in the enormous support for the Help for Heroes charities, there is a matching disdain for the politicians who have sent them overseas. Increasingly, as the MoD itself admits, there is a war-weariness among the public.

Unmanned drones help enormously with this problem as they can be operated via satellite from thousands of miles away and dramatically lower the risk to British forces.

Drones are also leading to much more secrecy. Despite more than five years of UK drone operations in Afghanistan there is very little public information about the impact of their use. While the MoD shows selected journalists around RAF Waddington, parliamentary questions and Freedom of Information requests aimed at informing public debate on the matter are simply refused. Perhaps acknowledging this lack of public debate, the defence select committee is holding an inquiry into the use of drones by British forces. However, I was informed recently that there are to be no public hearings on the issue.

Last summer, following a large public demonstration against drones, I was one of five campaigners who entered RAF Waddington to disrupt the ongoing drone operations and try to break the secrecy surrounding the use of British drones. While we were in the base we …read more    

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