Monday, September 14, 2015

Can Britain be right to kill her own citizens?

To judge by commentary in the papers and on TV and internet sites, the drone killing in Syria on August 21 of two British citizens fighting alongside Islamic State (Isis), and the same but much higher profile end this week of so-called 'Jihadi John', continues to confuse and divide public opinion in the UK. No doubt it is doing so in many other parts of today's global village.

Was the Conservative government right to authorise these strikes? Not surprisingly the Labour Party has questions. But the Labour Party is in opposition again after last year’s elections and faced with the tricky task of judging a public mood swinging between Islamophobia and compassion for innocent Muslim refugees fleeing to Europe. The opposition has questions, but it raises them, one senses, gingerly, not all of one mind.

In any case in Britain’s democracy, the questions come in from across the political spectrum. What was the legal basis for the deadly strike? Was the action justified on grounds of self-defence against a clear and present danger?

MPs are not alone in demanding to know why the British parliament was not consulted before the action was taken. There is no law that says it must be, but it can now be called a convention for the executive to consult the legislature on such serious matters, along with the other conventions that are the historic basis of the British constitution. The fear is the UK is merely following the USA again, adopting unlawful drone strikes. Prime Minister David Cameron is doing a me-too on Tony Blair. Many see now what they did not see at the time Blair took his country to war in Iraq. They believe he was no more than the puppet of US President George W Bush.

All that aside, are drone killings out of the blue not fundamentally inconsistent with human rights? With the need for justice and a fair hearing? Do drone attacks also kill innocent people? Who can prove they do not? Is this the start of a slippery slope? Are the rule of law and democracy itself under threat in the UK, a country that should be guarding and honouring these institutions?

There are no answers all will accept. The questions overlap with no sharp boundaries between them. Nevertheless in assessing the use of drones in the radically different technological world of the 21st Century - a world where the nature of warfare is changing like everything else before our eyes - it helps to look at these questions separately on political, legal and moral grounds, even if those grounds can never be completely distinct.

On political grounds, Mr Cameron seems justified in arguing his government’s first duty is to ensure the safety of British citizens. More to the point, he can claim that their safety is what British citizens expect first and foremost from his government. If that involves the use of drones in today’s terribly dangerous world, so be it. Against this, calls for rational restraint and for negotiations with Isis - the calls the new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is making - may be as arrogant and remote from the real wishes of the public as Tony Blair’s gung-ho adventure was in Iraq.

In such circumstances the strict letter of the law can easily be made to look like a barrier to common sense and observing it mere foolishness. In contradiction of the critics and doubters, legal experts as well as government ministers claim the drone strikes were legal: more may well be necessary in future. Isis directly threatens British lives and British law recognises the right to take pre-emptive action when one’s life - and by extension, therefore, citizens’ lives - are directly threatened. The left across the board are not satisfied with this. Their view is that government ministers and selective legal experts would say that. Totally new thinking is essential if the world is to avoid the apocalypse.

So the legal argument is muddled with the political, the political with the legal, and the moral argument with both. A fierce debate rolls on while what are called ‘ordinary people’ get on with their lives, trusting they won’t be blown up on the bus to work or in the market.

It is the moral question that is the most intractable in the end. As one comment on a website ran: “Questioning the authority of unauthorised military action does not equate with sympathy or support for Isis.”

Well, does it?

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