Last month’s announcement that a Royal Air Force drone was used to kill two British citizens in Syria has reignited debates about the legality of targeted killings, but there is always a danger that something gets lost within this legal frame. Questions about the geographical boundaries of contemporary conflict and the legal status of those being targeted are clearly important and should not be ignored but we should also be aware that other equally important issues are being pushed to the margins of debate. As I argue in my recent article for International Political Sociology, the rather dry, disembodied and technical language of international law tends to ignore the pain and suffering experienced by those targeted and the detrimental effects drone operations are having on the communities living below. As such, these legal debates have failed to contest the notion that this technology provides a more efficient, more effective and more humane way of waging war.
One of the reasons that this incident has caused such a stir is that it is the first time that the British have used a drone to carry out an extra-judicial killing. In a statement to the House of Commons last month, David Cameron confirmed that a British drone had been used to carry out a deadly attack in Syria despite the fact that MPs had previously voted against military operations against Bashar al-Assad. The victims –Reyaad Khan, Ruhul Amin and a third unidentified man – were killed when their car was hit as it travelled through the northern city of Raqqa. They were targeted, Cameron argued, because Khan was plotting a series of ‘barbaric attacks against the West’ and ‘actively recruiting ISIL sympathisers’ to carry them out. The Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, provided some additional details the following day, telling the BBC that months of ‘meticulous planning [and] careful surveillance’ had gone into this attack and that the government ‘wouldn’t hesitate to do it again’. Indeed, he went on to suggest that the British might adopt a US-style hit list, prompting a fierce rebuke from human rights groups.