Cameron's extra-judicial killing of Britons raises legal questions

Cameron's extra-judicial killing of Britons raises legal questions
Comment: The targeted killing of its own citizens in foreign lands may pave the way to further UK military action in Syria, writes Neil Partrick
5 min read
09 Sep, 2015
Cameron said that British IS fighters were targeted in a drone strike 'in self-defence' [Getty]

The legal advice has not been published, only summarised in parliament on Monday by the UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

However, it appears that his authorisation of the killing of two British nationals in Syria was legal if he was acting under the Royal Prerogative.

When allowing parliament to decide two years ago whether military action should be taken in Syria, and thus seemingly changing the UK's (unwritten) constitution, Cameron said that, despite a majority of MPs being against military action, he, as prime minister, still reserved the right to authorise military action if there was an urgent threat in Syria - or anywhere else - to the UK and/or its nationals.

Reserving such a right appears to make the UK drone attack on British nationals in Syria legal under UK law, due to an apparent retention of the Royal Prerogative for apparently urgent cases affecting national security.

So what price the change in the constitution that Cameron's predecessor, Gordon Brown, said would be initiated after Iraq?

The convention that there would now be a parliamentary vote on going to war was actually one that Blair begun before a British soldier put a boot on the ground in Iraq in 2003. While Blair could have ignored a no vote by using the Royal Prerogative, politically it would have been untenable - and so would he have been.

Michael Fallon, the UK defence secretary, was forced to admit a month ago that UK pilots had been flying sorties over Syria for some time.

Those missions - about which he had not told parliament - presumably helped provide the intelligence, along with the human kind and possibly that provided by Arab neighbours, that assisted what Cameron is now saying was military action forced upon the UK, due to these young combatants constituting an imminent terror threat.

     This was a very political prelude to the renewed debate Cameron wants parliament to have on the UK going to war in Syria

The UK is at war with the Islamic State group, but has not declared war on Syria - and parliament, when it was last allowed to, voted against the UK doing so.

It would seem that the UK government's assassination of British nationals - not for the first time in the history of the British state, but the first recorded time in Syria - is what in military parlance is called a "psy-op".

This was a very political prelude to the renewed debate Cameron wants parliament to have on the UK going to war in Syria.

If, this time, parliament approves, then Britain will shortly be using its currently limited aerial capacity to hit IS with more firepower and, perhaps, more legality.

However, if the still (under international law) "legitimate" Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, does not ask us to do this - and his foreign minister recently railed against the UK for interfering in his country - then, as Andy Burnham (a Labour Party leadership contender) argued, it may not be legal.

Under international law this could be the case whether Cameron draws on Her Majesty's far-from-ceremonial powers to do so or not.

More air raids on either Syria or Iraq that are intended to counter IS, whoever conducts them, will potentially increase the volume of refugees seeking to get into Europe. The current European security and, to some extent, moral crisis will not be resolved in the skies of the Middle East but might be eased in Middle Eastern territory.

It is not enough for the UK to offer to take ten or even a few tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, especially as many of the migrants pressing to get into Europe are not Syrian.

However, the answer does not ultimately lie in bolstering right-wing support in poorer parts of the UK and mainland Europe - for relatively poorer areas are inevitably where most of any additional Middle Eastern/Balkan nationals will end up locating.

     Saudi Arabia's current contribution to the UN relief fund for Syria is less than two percent of what the US gives

Nor is anyone holding their breath for what UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said on Tuesday was the solution: peace in the Middle East.

However, establishing safe zones just outside of Syria - in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, guarded by local, regional and some western (including UK) troops, who in the process would be guarding the national boundaries of allied Middle Eastern states, would be a good idea.

The Gulf Arabs can dispatch some of the troops that they are currently happy to deploy in their proxy battle with Iran in the collapsing, war-ravaged entity that goes under the name of Yemen.

That, and their still large spare financial capacity (despite the relatively low oil price), can easily be focused on the country they say they are desperate to save, Syria. Majority Sunni Arab, this heartland of modern Arab nationalism and historic cultural centre of the the Islamic "nation", is the natural place for the leading Gulf Arab states to play a serious part in helping.

Saudi Arabia's current contribution to the UN relief fund for Syria is less than two percent of what the US gives. A renowned Saudi pundit commented this week that the Gulf states shouldn't be criticised in the west for their - comparatively low - level of support for Syria, when Iran and Russia are fuelling the war and not taking refugees either.

I think there is at least a little external "fuelling" on the Syrian rebel side, and some of the latter fighters are hardly friends of the west.

So Mr Cameron, and for that matter Ms Cooper (should she scrape home in Saturday's Labour Party leadership vote count), what will you say to our Gulf Arab allies, and our fellow NATO ally Turkey, about this?

A version of this article was originally published on Neil Partrick's blog on September 9, 2015.

Dr Neil Partrick is the editor and main author of Saudi Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation which will be published by IB Tauris in December 2015. He is a freelance consultant on Gulf affairs. Neil has worked in Jerusalem, Dubai and Sharjah, and is a former head of the RUSI Middle East Programme and a former senior editor at the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.