Yesterday, the Prime Minister re-announced that his Government had targeted British citizens with missiles fired from RAF drones. Two men are dead. The Sun and others have cheered the news. Others have expressed grave concern.
This morning I wrote this:
Unsure of legality & morality of drone strikes on UK IS fighters. But I do know its a sad thing, not to be celebrated pic.twitter.com/HvLhk9D9wR
— Robert Sharp रॉबट शारप (@robertsharp59) September 8, 2015
Actually, I am sure what I think about such killings. I will come to that in a moment, but for now I want to remark on something else.
This is the kind of issue on which the opinions of many honest people diverge from that of human rights activists, and they really cannot fathom what is so problematic with such actions.
“They’re trying to kill us? What is wrong with us taking them out first?” said one person to me last week (we were talking about killing Islamist fighters in general, not British variants in particular).
The news that Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were killed by drones therefore presents human rights activists with a double challenge. The first is to oppose such actions and to call the Government to account for them. The second, regrettably, is to explain ourselves to the electorate. The Human Rights Act is under attack from this Conservative Government and it is essential that public opinion does not swing away from this crucial law, nor the values that underpin it.
So why are the drone strikes wrong?
Khan and Amin do not provoke much sympathy. I am sure that their underlying reasons for joining IS were complex and the particular sociology of their stories will be relevant and important. Nevertheless, the fact remains that they chose to abandon the United Kingdom and align themselves with a group that beheads its enemies and subjugates women. They announced that the UK was their enemy and they plotted atrocities against us. Really, what is so wrong about taking them out?
First, there is a chance they did not commit the crimes they are accused of. By this, I do not suggest that Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were innocent bystanders, the victims of a fatal mistake! That is obviously not the case. Rather, I ask this: did they actually commit acts of terrorism against other people? Or did they instead just engage in propaganda stunts on YouTube and Twitter?
The only evidence that they engaged in violence comes from our Government—the same people that just blew them up with an air strike. Given the Government’s dubious record on such matters, this is a legitimate concern. As we have seen on issues like Northern Ireland, WMDs and the Jean Charles De Menezes debacle, our security services do lie to cover up both conspiracies and mistakes. What if they’re lying now?
We British citizens (which, until recently, included Khan and Amin) have some insurance against Government conspiracies and errors: The Rule of Law. If we come into conflict with the Government then we are put on trial. If we are innocent we can explain ourselves, and if we are guilty we will be punished proportionately. This principle is a feather in the cap of our democracy. That the Rule of Law was bypassed in the case of Khan and Amin is a black eye for the UK.
Adherance to the Rule of Law is crucial in a democracy. We abide by the restrictions that we have placed upon ourselves. If someone comits a crime, then we put them on trial. We do not execute them on a whim. This is at the core of what it means to be a decent and civilised country. It is a blanket principle and cannot be subjected to a “yeah, but” retort listing some exceptions. Laws that only apply some of the time to the people that David Cameron decides are worthy of them are not really laws at all: due process becomes the gift of the powerful.
“But they would not do them same for us!”
Yes, I am well aware that if Islamic State militants were to catch us in Syria or Iraq, they would chop off our heads and upload a video of the deed to YouTube. But we should not sink to that barbarous level, because we aspire to be better than them. Indeed, the fact that they give no quarter to their enemies is one of the main reasons why we are fighting them: it is evidence of their depravity and their dangerousness.
If and when we catch them on British streets, we must send them to The Old Bailey and then to Belmarsh. It is in this process that we signal our humanity and our superiority. Upholding the rule of law when we encounter them is a victory in itself.
Taking any kind of legal shortcut is tantamount to admitting defeat. Missile strikes on British citizens, signed off by ministers, utterly undermine the idea of due process.
Worse: they allow IS to claim moral equivalence between our actions and theirs.
It is for this reason that the Government’s explanation that “we are at war” is not good enough. Islamic State militants also think they are at war. Those deranged jihadi videos that periodically surface talk of war and resistance as a justification for terrorism. By sending in the drones to kill them, we encourage the “war” mentality.
Related: other countries with a more malign approach to the world enjoy using the national security excuse as a reason to censor, abuse rights, and kill. Russia could easily deem Ukrainian resistance activists in the Chrimea as equivalent to Islamic State fighters in Iraq. China erroneously considers Taiwan and Tibet to be its sovereign territory and might declare people who say differently to be a threat. Turkey routinely labels anyone who speaks of Kurdish separatism to be a terrorist (last week, two British journalists who wrote about Kurdish issues are arrested on this basis, and their Iraqi colleague remains detained). Extra-judicial drone strikes based on the say-so of a politician set a terrible example to others.
I can think of two rejoinders to what I’ve written above. The first is that, if we are not at war, then perhaps we should be? Islamic State now controls vast swathes of oi-rich territory and their presence in Syria is one of the main reasons for the refugee crisis on the edge of Europe. Why not just bite the bullet, quite literally, and drive them out with the all our military might?
There may be some moral merit to this idea. Surely ‘just war’ theory would justify an attack on the Islamic State? However, I think there is a broad consensus that a Western invasion on the 2003 model is in advisable and would only destabilise things further (this was one of the reasons why I opposed the Iraq war back then). Meanwhile the other Arab countries in the neighbourhood seem unable and unwilling to step up. Which leaves us nowhere. But the practical impossibility of an all-out war does not justify waging phoney or proxy wars in which some individuals are targeted for extermination, in the way that Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin were over the summer.
The other retort is to ask why human rights activists are indignant about the killing of British citizens, but not drone strikes on people from other nations. Surely, blowing up humans is no more or less abhorrent just because they happen to have a different coloured passport.
I would agree with this. Human rights principles should hold across nationalities.
I guess that the reason why the debate centres around these British cases is because the legal framework is far more established than for other citizens. For the Rule of Law to be enforced (and indeed respected) the law itself needs to be fairly clear. By contrast, International law is murky and uncertain, and so its is more difficult for legal challenge to be brought against a Government carrying out drone strikes.