05 July 2012

Church argues for Just War ethics in drone attacks

The ethics of using unmanned aircraft to carry out targeted killings was debated at the Methodist Conference in Plymouth today.

On the day it was announced that the British Army is to be restructured, Methodists agreed that the UK Government should urge the U.S. to discontinue the practice of targeting suspected members of terrorist organisations with drones. The Conference also asked the UK Government to publish as much information as possible concerning its current strategy, with particular reference to counter insurgency. Church leaders expressed concern that increased military reliance on remotely operated weaponry could make armed intervention more likely as the physical risk to home troops is lower.

A working group of policy experts submitted a report to the Methodist Conference highlighting moral concerns surrounding the use of drones, recognising that armed unmanned aircraft has the potential to transform the use of air power in conflict and counter-insurgency. Steve Hucklesby, a Methodist policy adviser and member of the working group, said: "If there is a legitimate use for this technology we need a much clearer idea of the boundaries for its use.  Terrorists function outside the law. It is vitally important that the UK and its allies do not do so as well. The targeted killings carried out by the CIA in northern Pakistan demonstrate only too clearly the ethical challenges that will face us as this technology proliferates more widely."

A report to the Conference on drone warfare states that in the wake of the 9/11 atrocity the U.S. Government passed legislation enabling the President to use military force to pursue those responsible. "It is on this basis that the CIA has operated Armed Unmanned Aircraft Systems in a persistent campaign of targeted killings in northern Pakistan," the report states. "Accurate figures for those killed are difficult to obtain but estimates suggest between 1,717 and 2,680 since 2004. It is even more difficult to determine what proportion of those persons killed were militants, terrorists or civilians. Terrorists are not warriors and those suspected to be guilty of, or to be plotting, even the most dreadful of crimes need to be dealt with using an accountable judicial process."

The United Reformed Church and the Baptist Union of Great Britain voiced their support for the Conference's decision. Frank Kantor, the United Reformed Church's Secretary for Church and Society, said:  "The United Reformed Church is a member of the Joint Public Issues Team that submitted the report debated at Methodist Conference.  The ethical and moral issues surrounding drones is a significant issue and we are pleased that the Methodist Conference has engaged with this debate - the URC will be grappling with the same issue at its General Assembly, which meets next week."

Stephen Keyworth, Head of Faith and Unity at the Baptist Union of Great Britain, said: "Drone technology and their use in conflict present us with a new dimension to an age-old ethical issue.  We welcome the work completed for the report and the way it has been addressed by the Methodist Conference; Baptists will have an opportunity to make a similar contribution to this important debate in the coming months."

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