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U.K.'s Top Diplomat Faces Suit Over Pakistan Drone Strikes

  • Daisy Sindelar

British Foreign Secretary William Hague

British Foreign Secretary William Hague

Human rights lawyers in Britain have filed an application with London's High Court aimed at forcing the country's top diplomat, Foreign Secretary William Hague, to justify his country's assistance with U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan.

The client facing off against the British foreign secretary is Noor Khan, a man from Pakistan's remote North Waziristan, which has been targeted with serial air strikes by unmanned drones in U.S. attempts to weaken Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants thought to be sheltering in the region.

Katherine O'Shea, a spokeswoman for the British legal action group Reprieve, says Khan approached lawyers in Islamabad after his father, a prominent tribal elder, was killed last year while participating in a peaceful jirga aimed at resolving a mining dispute.

"His father was killed in a drone strike on March 17, 2011 -- so, nearly a year ago -- when he was participating in a jirga, a meeting of tribal elders," O'Shea said. "We think that there were up to 40 [people] killed in that strike, and Noor is trying to seek justice for his father."

Evidence suggests that the March 17 strike -- and dozens of others like it -- were conducted by the U.S. with help from the British intelligence agency GCHQ, which falls under Hague's supervision as the secretary of state for foreign and Commonwealth affairs.

The London-based law firm Leigh Day and Company, which filed the March 12 application, says Hague and the civilian intelligence employees under his command have no legal right to pass information to the United States for use in its controversial drone campaign, which has killed hundreds of people in Pakistan over the past six years.
The CIA employees who are pressing the button which would lead the drone to go off are civilians. They're not combatants."

Rosa Curling, a solicitor with Leigh Day, cites a number of factors that would appear to strip Hague and the GCHQ of immunity from prosecution.

One is the fact that no international armed conflict has been declared in Pakistan. Another, she says, is that members of the British and U.S. intelligence communities are civilians and therefore cannot be described as lawful combatants.

"The only individuals who are immune from ordinary criminal law -- i.e., murder -- are those who under international law are regarded as lawful combatants participating in an international armed conflict," Curling says. "The CIA employees who are pressing the button which would lead the drone to go off are civilians. They're not combatants. And they're not entitled to immunity under ordinary criminal law. Exactly the same is true in relations to GCHQ employees."

Adding to the weight of the concerns is the fact that the drone campaign is seen as using a degree of force that is "not necessary and not proportionate," in Curling's words. She says Hague and members of the GCHQ could ultimately be liable for prosecution for crimes against humanity or war crimes under the International Criminal Court Act of 2001, which brought the U.K.'s war crimes legislation in line with international law.

Hague has three weeks to respond to the application, at which point the court is free to approve a substantive probe of the issue.

Lawyers are hoping to press Hague to disclose the policy behind the continued cooperation with Washington. Solicitors for the foreign secretary have so far refused to confirm or deny whether a defined policy exists.

The drone campaign has been at the heart of blackening anger directed at the United States from Pakistan. Reprieve spokesperson O'Shea says many in the U.S. legal community have followed the drone controversy with worry, suggesting there is reason to believe similar cases may eventually be brought before courtrooms in the United States, as well.

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