Without the satellite relay infrastructure at Ramstein Air Base in Western Germany, the drones quite literally could not fly.
This week, in a small courtroom in Germany, a judge will hear a case that could have profound implications for Governments across Europe. The UK Government, in particular, should take heed. The court will consider whether European support for the US drone programme – through the provision of bases and intelligence – makes it complicit in the deaths of innocent civilians. And, more importantly, whether that support must stop.
For years, Europe has been hiding in the shadows of the United States’ covert drone programme – one that has killed thousands of men, women and children far from any recognised battlefield.
While the US may fire the missiles, countries like Germany and the UK are providing the critical support that makes strikes possible. Without the satellite relay infrastructure at Ramstein Air Base in Western Germany, the drones quite literally could not fly.
It is the role of this base that is being challenged in the German courts by Faisal bin ali Jaber, a Yemeni engineer who lost family members to a US drone strike in August 2012. Faisal’s brother, Salem bin ali Jaber, was a Yemeni imam who preached against Al Qaeda days before the US killed him. His nephew, Waleed, was one of only two policemen in his village. Waleed was with Salem that day to provide protection from those the family thought were their biggest threat – Al Qaeda. It never occurred to them the US might try to kill them.
“As President Trump rolls back more and more safeguards for his drone programme, he risks more and more innocent lives”
Days after the US killed Salem and Waleed, a secret cable apparently admitted the mistake. Yet, more than six years later, the family has not received even a simple acknowledgement that the US took the strike, much much less the apology they deserve.
Tomorrow, the German court is only considering its home government’s involvement in US drone strike deaths. But Germany is not alone in providing the support that makes strikes like that which killed Salem and Waleed possible. British personnel have been instrumental in gathering data about potential targets in Yemen, while British intelligence officers in RAF bases in the UK work with their US counterparts to “task targets” in support of US strikes. British personnel on the ground in countries like Yemen provide vital “human intelligence” and mentor US “targeting teams”. At times, they may even be embedded with US pilots carrying out the lethal strikes.
In April 2016, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights raised concerns about the UK Government’s actions, saying it demonstrated a “misunderstanding of the legal frameworks that apply” to the use of armed drones outside of warzones. In doing so, the Committee warned that UK support for the US programme could expose ministers and others to the risk of criminal prosecution.
Despite this, the UK Government has refused to clarify either the legal frameworks under which it is operating or what support it provides the US programme via bases in the UK and intelligence sharing. Instead, in September 2017, it released a new drones doctrine in which it talked about a UK policy of “targeted killing”. When MPs raised questions and concerns, the Government responded that no such policy existed and that the doctrine was “misleading” and a result of “erroneous drafting”. Instead, it says it works “through partners” to “negate” threats.
As President Trump rolls back more and more safeguards for his drone programme, he risks more and more innocent lives. Faisal and his family will be in court this week to try and stop Germany from using Ramstein Aribase to carry out future attacks. To try and stop, in other words, other families from going through the horror that they have had to endure.
We should be asking the same questions here as are being asked in Germany, and demanding the same response from the UK government. Just because we didn’t press the button doesn’t mean we aren’t responsible. It’s long past time the UK come clean about its own complicity in the US drone programme and brings it to an end. The lives of Faisal, his family and millions of other Yemenis depend on it.
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