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HR group mounts legal challenge over US drones

Updated August 15, 2013
— File photo
— File photo

THE export of British-manufactured parts for American drones used in clandestine CIA strikes inside Pakistan is facing a legal challenge from the campaign group Reprieve. The London-based human rights organisation is to apply for a judicial review of the way in which the UK’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) operates government export controls.

It is bringing the action on behalf of Malik Jalal, an elder of the Manzar Kel tribe who lives in Waziristan. His region has been attacked repeatedly by US drones, known officially as “unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs), targeting Taliban and Al Qaeda supporters.

Rights groups say that Pakistani villagers are the main victims of the US drone programme, which is directed by the Central Intelligence Agency.

According to Reprieve, a tribal gathering in the area was struck in March 2011 and 50 people were killed; several of Mr Jalal’s relatives were among the injured.

“As a result of the UAV strikes, Malik Jalal and others residing in the area live in constant fear,” Reprieve wrote in a letter to BIS. “There are very often UAVs hovering overhead. “Members of Malik Jalal’s tribe cannot tell whether they are intending to fire missiles or simply for surveillance, and the knowledge that any one of them at any time could launch a missile is unbearable.”

In their pre-action letter of claim to BIS, Reprieve details the technical assistance UK companies are providing to the CIA’s programme, which uses UAVs such as General Atomics’ MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.

It alleges that the sale of antennas and other key electronic parts to the US programme should be prohibited under the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, which require that the equipment should not be used for acts that contravene the law of armed conflict.

Reprieve’s claim states: “The CIA’s use of UAVs to fire missiles in Pakistan is... in breach of the international law of armed conflict... The US is not involved in an 'armed conflict' with Pakistan and, in any event, the UAVs are operated by CIA employees who are not 'lawful combatants’ for the purposes of the Geneva conventions.

“Killing citizens (including children and rescuers) of a sovereign state with which the US is not at war is plainly an aggressive use of force.”Among the UK companies alleged to be supplying equipment for the Predator and Reaper is the British firm Cobham who denied that it was involved. A spokesman said: “We haven’t exported any of our products to US drones that were used in Pakistan.”A letter of response from the government’s Treasury Solicitors department, on behalf of BIS, said: “All applications, including those made by Cobham, are considered against the Consolidated Criteria. There was (and is) no 'clear risk’ that the goods for which [export licences] were granted to Cobham would be used in missile attacks in Pakistan.” The firm’s equipment had not been used in ‘weaponised’ UAVs, it said.

The Treasury solicitors added: “BIS, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence had no evidence and therefore no reason to assess that there was a clear risk that these goods would be used in missile attacks by UAVs in Pakistan, or to consider the application of the Consolidated Criteria by reference to any such possibility.”

The courts had declined to give judgment in previous similar export claims, the government’s lawyers pointed out.

Jules Carey, the solicitor acting for Reprieve, said: “The issue is about the practice of licensing parts for export that are used in weaponised UAVs for targeted killings by the US government. BIS seeks to avoid engaging, by arguing, for instance, that this is not a case that can be tried in the British courts or that Malik Jalal, who lives in the shadow of the drones, has sufficient interest in the case.”

A BIS spokesperson said: “The government takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously, and operates one of the most rigorous arms export control regimes in the world.

“All export licences are considered on a case-by-case basis against the export licensing criteria, in light of the prevailing circumstances at the time and depending on end use. We do not export equipment where there is a clear risk [that] it might be used for internal repression, or would aggravate existing tensions or conflicts, or would be used aggressively against another country.”

By arrangement with the Guardian