Yesterday, UK government minister Rory Stewart fleshed out the UK’s new extrajudicial killing policy. He said that that the only way to deal with hundreds of British citizens who’ve left to fight with Isis, and remain out there somewhere, is to kill them. This was immediately backed up by UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and, making it quite clear that it’s formal policy now, by the prime minister’s office.
There’s plenty of commentary on the whole business, of course; it’s easy enough to search so I won’t complicate this little piece by repeating those arguments. Instead, I thought I’d flag a thing I haven’t seen stressed yet. It’s that we’ve clearly moved beyond the oversight debate (see this useful document) – which revolves around how rules of conflict can be applied in an age of terrorism and drones – and into a new era of quite large scale extrajudicial killing.
With the new large numbers of those likely to be killed – and the places they’re likely to be killed as varied as Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and possibly elsewhere – it seems quite possible that at the point they become available as a target they might be simply in effect living as a regular person in their chosen foreign state. It goes without saying, I think, that we need more information on the hows, whys and wherefores of ‘targeting policy’. But surely if we’re going to be killing hundreds of people without trial now, there should be a new system where warrants are issued by judges?
Obviously the Daily Mail et al will tell us that ministers and commanders couldn’t be hampered by having to consult a judge before mounting an operation. But this feels like an argument from the olden days and comes across as self-interested nonsense in this day and age. There’s literally no reason at all a judge of the appropriate rank couldn’t be available at all times in situ with ministers and commanders to issue a warrant where deemed appropriate.
Now we have a view to a kill, it’s going to be harder for us to criticise other states who kill people they view as a threat. What we do have going for us in that respect, though, is that we’re a mature democracy. But that means more than just accepting the word of politicians and secret agents that people like, say, Sally Jones and her 12 year old son, were clear and present dangers when we killed them the other week. We’re killing kids too, don’t forget.
If we’re going to kill people overseas in the name of protecting citizens at home – and sometimes that might well be unavoidable – then let’s not allow political opportunism or ambiguity to creep in. I know Rory Stewart a little. Whether you agree with him nor not, he’s an intelligent and thoughtful man not prone to trying to look hard for the sake of it. But I also remember Michael Portillo’s terrible SAS speech and I would not have trusted that man for one second in the present circumstances ministers find themselves in. And there are plenty of Michael Portillo types around politics, of course.
If we’re to be civilised folk doing the uncivilised thing because we sometimes have no other choice, let’s make sure we do it by the book. And that can only be done, it seems to me, if the book’s been written in black and white so that it’s the subject of full legal and democratic oversight.