Yemen Drone Strike Kills 15
Protesters burn an effigy of a US aircraft during a protest against US interference in YemenReuters

Legal charity Reprieve has urged Whitehall to clarify its position on the covert US drone programme after a growing number of senior UK ambassadors came out in favour of their use in conflict zones

The ambassador to the US, Sir Peter Westmacott, said the Pentagon should buy British-made 'Brimstone' missile for use on its 'Reaper' drones, Reprieve said. His call came after Britain's ambassador to Yemen, Jane Marriott, said that drone strikes made "a difference [because] threats went away after the strikes," Reprieve said.

"Would we as a country really be happy to see UK-made missiles used to carry out strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, in violation of international law?" Donald Campbell, Reprieve head of communications, told IBTimesUK.

"Given ministers' refusal to comment publicly on the CIA's illegal drone war, it is surprising to see our country's ambassadors give it such enthusiastic backing," Campbell said.

"The UK government's silence on the US' covert drone campaign is no longer acceptable – ministers must come clean on whether they support it," he continued.

UK's Foreign Secretary William Hague urges Thailand to embrace democracy
UK's Foreign Secretary William HagueReuters

In a letter to the foreign secretary William Hague, Reprieve's executive director Clare Algar urged the government to consider the potential legal and diplomatic consequences of supplying UK-built missiles for use in such strikes.

Algar also asked the government to publish its assessment of the numbers of civilians killed in the strikes.

Full letter to William Hague

Dear Secretary of State

I write with reference to comments made by two UK Ambassadors regarding drones – or 'Remotely Piloted Air Systems,' to use the Government's preferred nomenclature.

Firstly, Peter Westmacott, HM Ambassador to the United States, wrote a piece last week for the Defense One publication in which he argued that the US should buy the British-made 'Brimstone' missile for use on its 'Reaper' drones.

As you will be aware, the Reaper – along with its smaller cousin, the 'Predator' – Is best known for its use by the CIA and other secretive US agencies in carrying out covert strikes in Yemen and Pakistan. Such strikes are in violation of international law, and known to have killed large numbers of civilians outside of declared warzones.

Your own Government is clearly aware of such controversies, as demonstrated in ministers' repeated refusals to take a position on the legal or moral issues around such strikes: most recently, your colleague Hugh Robertson re-iterated to MPs that "Drone Yemen are a matter for the Yemeni and US Governments."

Such a carefully-trod line would appear to be at odds with Sir Peter's enthusiastic salesmanship when it comes to supplying the missiles that would, in future, destroy targets in Yemen – an alarming prospect when one considers that, as recently as December, one such strike was reported as having "turn[ed] a wedding into a funeral".

Secondly, shortly before this incident, HM Ambassador to Yemen, Jane Marriott, commented in an interview that drones "certainly do make a difference" and that "threats" – it is not clear specifically which threats she means, as Yemen clearly has ongoing security problems – "went away after the drone strikes."

It would therefore appear that this country's ambassadors are prepared to go much further in making their views clear on this issue than are our own elected representatives. In the light of these public statements by HM ambassadors to the US and Yemen, I wonder whether you would now be able to clarify for me:

(1) What the UK Government's position is on the legality of US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan;

(2) What assessment the UK Government has made of the number of civilian casualties resulting from such strikes, and whether it considers that that number is acceptable;

(3) What assessment the UK Government has made of the impact of such strikes on the domestic security of Yemen and Pakistan, and of the UK; and of the impact on communities who are affected by the routine presence of drones overhead;

And (4) What assessment the UK has made of the potential legal and diplomatic consequences of supplying UK-built missiles for use in such strikes.

As I think I have made clear above, the public positions taken on such matters by UK Government officials mean it is no longer possible for UK ministers to refuse to address these crucial questions. I hope therefore that you will be able to provide me with clear answers to the above.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Yours sincerely,

Clare Algar

Executive Director, Reprieve