RW(UK) challenge Information Commissioner’s decision to uphold refusal to publish legal advice on drones

As Joint Committee for Human Rights say government ducking central legal question on drone strikes, human rights group challenge Information Commissioner’s decision to uphold their refusal to publish legal advice.

Rights Watch UK have appealed the Information Commissioner’s decision to not release legal advice on the government’s lethal drone strike in Syria. The strike killed three individuals, including two British citizens.

Yasmine Ahmed, Executive Director of Rights Watch (UK), commented:

“Like the Joint Committee for Human Rights, we are deeply disappointed by the Government’s continued failure to provide clarity on their legal position and their attempts to shirk accountability. David Cameron’s reference to the legal advice he relied on, without elaborating on what that advice was, is mere lip service to transparency. Genuine accountability requires independent scrutiny of the legality of the strike.”

The use of drones to effect a targeted killing of British nationals in a country where the United Kingdom is not a party to an armed conflict or at war is unprecedented. It is clear that the Government claims the right to effect lethal drone strikes again and has in fact continued to effect lethal drone strikes as recently as September 2016. Accordingly, the legal justification for conducting lethal drone strikes remains a matter of significant public interest and ongoing debate.

The Prime Minister announced this “new departure” on 7th September 2015, acknowledging that the strike was not subject to prior Parliamentary scrutiny but insisting that the Attorney General had been consulted and was “clear there would be a clear legal basis for action in international law.” The following day Rights Watch (UK) submitted Freedom of Information Requests to the Attorney General and Cabinet Offices, asking for the advice to be published.

Both the Attorney General and Cabinet Offices rejected the request for the advice to be published yet there were discrepancies in their accounts of why the information was being withheld, which emerged during an internal review.

The Cabinet Office maintained that the legal advice was exempt due to the information being supplied by, or relating to, bodies dealing with security matters. In contrast, the Attorney General’s Office said that just part of the advice was being withheld because it was supplied or related to security bodies.

They later changed their position to move in line with the Cabinet Office, a shift that remains unexplained.

In this Appeal Rights Watch (UK) argue that it is necessary to distinguish between parts of the advice which may be classified and that which is subject to public interest, such as the government’s interpretation of international law, including when it is lawful to use lethal force outside an armed conflict or war, which the Commissioner failed to consider.

Yasmine Ahmed, Executive Director of Rights Watch (UK) commented that “Alluding to security matters must not be a catch all mantra that gives the government a blank cheque to veto attempts to scrutinise their actions and keep the public in the dark about the legal basis for a fundamental policy shift.”

There is also concern that the opinion of an unnamed “senior official” from the Cabinet Office was used as conclusive evidence that the legal advice is absolutely exempt in its totality without the commissioner examining the material herself. “This significantly dilutes the independence of the review” Ahmed said.

Yasmine Ahmed, Executive Director of Rights Watch (UK), went on to say:

The government’s refusal to clarify its position on the use of lethal force outside armed conflict on the basis that this is “hypothetical” is a disengenous attempt to evade the crucial question – one which has profound ramifications for international law and human lives.

The question lingers as to whether the government is following in the failed footsteps of the United States, reserving the right to kill its citizens outside of a declared war zones. This would reflect a radical reinterpretation of their international legal obligations – chipping away at long established constraints on the use of lethal force and creating a dangerous global precedent.

The public has a right to know what the Government is doing in their name particularly when it involves a significant departure in the use of lethal force that could have implications for the security of the United Kingdom if other countries adopt a similar position.”

Ends
19/10/2016

For more information contact Yasmine Ahmed (Director) on 0208 004 0941

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