Allegations of UK complicity in US drone strikes have been emerging for some time. For example, in March, the Daily Mail highlighted concerns that UK airbases were being used by the US for drone strikes, a claim boosted by the revelation that British Telecom is supplying a cable between Camp Lemonnier, the US’ drone base in Africa, and RAF Croughton. Subsequent Parliamentary Questions refuted these allegations but left a question as to the level of oversight that RAF Commanders had over US activities on UK soil. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s in-depth work drew attention to the correlation between the stripping of citizenship and subsequent targeting of former Britons in US drone strikes. Further, the Noor Khan case, in which a community gathering was targeted in a US drone strike in NW Pakistan, resulting in the deaths of over 50 people, alleged that GCHQ supplied locational information to the United States. While permission was refused for a full judicial review of the lawfulness of any British assistance for the US drone programme, it served to shine a spotlight on the US-UK intelligence sharing relationship.
Now, in Australia, we see the emergence of similar claims. In mid-August, the Human Rights Law Centre based in Melbourne, together with Human Rights Watch (HRW), wrote to the UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights and the Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial, summary or arbitrary executions highlighting allegations made in the media as to Australia’s involvement in the US’ drone programme and asking for these allegations to be considered by the Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights’ current inquiry into drones. This inquiry is examining the civilian impact of the use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The final report will make recommendations to States on their duty to conduct thorough independent and impartial investigations into such allegations.
In a manner similar to that seen in the Noor Khan case, the Human Rights Law Centre/HRW letter highlights concerns that “Australian officials may have facilitated targeted killing in violation of international humanitarian law and international human rights law” and requests consideration be paid to:
The extent to which Pine Gap is used to track targets before a drone strike and in post-strike assessments; The extent to which intelligence from Pine Gap was used in the 25 case studies which are the subject of your inquiry; The nature of the cooperation between Australian and US officials within the base and the level of involvement of Australian officials in obtaining and providing locational data used in targeting; The basis on which Australia claims its involvement through the Pine Gap base is lawful under both domestic and international law; The policy that applies to Australian officials at Pine Gap setting out the circumstances in which they transfer data to the US drone program.
The media claims that Pine Gap is a satellite tracking and listening station, which tracks Al-Qaeda and Taliban communications. This geo-locational information is subsequently passed to the United States for use in targeting drone strikes, according to The Age. In a statement to the Australian Parliament in June, the Defence Minister confirmed: “The Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap collects intelligence data which supports the national security interests of both Australia and the United States, and provides ballistic missile early warning information.” There was no mention of whether this information was used in drone strikes.
Australia is a signatory to the usual selection of international human rights treaties, including the UN Convention on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention against Torture. Its Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade claims that “Australia’s commitment to the aims and purposes of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflects our national values and is an underlying principle of Australia’s engagement with the international community.” These commitments appear somewhat hollow should the allegations of information sharing be proven.
With an election fast approaching, and drones already the subject of political debate, though more often in relation to their domestic deployment, and their use in a maritime capacity, the issue of drones broadly, and their impact upon the US/Australian intelligence and security relationship, shows little sign of abating.