Implications of the Use of Drones following the Assassination of Qasem Soleimani

This House of Lords Library Briefing contains a selection of material relevant for the forthcoming question for short debate on the implications of the use of drones following the assassination of Qasem Soleimani.

  • On 3 January 2020, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ overseas forces, General Qasem Solemani, was killed in a drone strike conducted by the US military at the Baghdad International Airport.
  • Mr Solemani was an influential figure in the region, who the US President, Donald Trump, has suggested was involved in the preparation of “imminent and sinister” attacks on US personnel, charges that Iran denies.
  • In response to the attack, Iran has launched two missile strikes against the al-Asad and Erbil airbases in Iraq, which house US and coalition forces. No fatalities have been reported.
  • The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, have called for a de-escalation of tensions and a diplomatic way through the crisis. In a further statement to Parliament, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, reiterated that the UK’s focus was a de-escalation of the issue and the security of UK forces and civilians in the region.
  • The drone used in the original attack was reportedly a MQ-9 Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics and capable of remote-controlled or autonomous flight operations.
  • The use of military drones has grown steadily since the technology first deployed to spot hidden Serbian positions during the 1999 Kosovo war. According to statistics published by the Guardian, in four years of war against Isis in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2018, the UK deployed Reaper drones on more than 2,400 missions—almost two a day.
  • As the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament (ISC) investigated in its 2017 report, the assassination of three individuals in Syria on 21 August 2015—including UK national Reyaad Khan—marked the first time outside of participation in a military campaign that UK armed forces had conducted a lethal drone strike against a terrorist target.
  • This incident was also examined by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which called on the Government to urgently clarify its view of the legal basis under which the action was taken; to clarify the legal basis on which it contributes to the use of lethal force abroad outside armed conflict by other countries such as the US; and concluded there should be greater accountability for such uses of lethal force, proposing the ISC be given a more prominent role.
  • In its response to the Joint Committee, the Government said its policy was to defend the United Kingdom from terrorism using all lawful means necessary and that it believed there was a clear legal basis for such action in the case of the drone strikes in question, citing international law on self-defence including in Article 51 of the United Nations (UN) Charter.
  • The Government has not published a substantive response to the report published by the ISC. In a statement on 20 December 2017, the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, reiterated a rigorous decision-making process had underpinned the 2015 airstrikes, and that the Attorney General had been consulted and was clear there was a legal basis for action.