The UK’s Letter to the UN Security Council Leaves Plenty of Unanswered Questions About Last Month’s RAF Drone Strike

Yesterday, I wrote a post helping to untangle some of the international law questions involved in last month’s UK drone strike in Syria that killed three individuals, two of them British citizens. Shortly after my original post, the UK letter to the UN Security Council was made available. In it, the Government asserts the right to self defense as the legal basis for the strike. While this may appear to answer some of the legal questions I raised, much remains unanswered:

1) It’s unclear how the Security Council letter squares up with the Prime Minister’s statement that this strike was not part of coalition operations in Syria. The most commonly accepted legal basis for the coalition operations against the Islamic State is the collective self defense on behalf of Iraq. Is the UK asserting another separate collective self defense, or do the UNSC letter and PM statement contradict each other?

2) The letter also mentions individual self defense of the UK. The questions will remain as to whether there was an imminent attack against the UK that needed to be averted by the strike.

3) The self defense argument will only provide an answer to the jus ad bellum, the resort to force without Syrian consent. It doesn’t answer the question of which law governed the lethal force in the actual killing. If it’s the law of armed conflict (LOAC), then is it because the individuals were part of the Iraq-IS conflict? If not, then what conflict were they part of? The conflict at issue must be one between the UK and IS for LOAC to be applicable. Is the UK asserting that, under LOAC, all active IS fighters are legitimate targets globally wherever they are, so long as the jus ad bellum aspect is answered?

4) If they’re not claiming that the individuals were killed as part of an armed conflict between the UK and IS, then there’s no LOAC without an armed conflict and we’re back to needing a justification for lethal force that would correspond with the high threshold of human rights law.

The strike may or may not have been lawful, but any determination will need to wait answers as to some of the factual and legal assumptions. 

About the Author(s)

Noam Lubell

Professor of International Law of Armed Conflict at the University of Essex, Former Head of the School (2014-2017) Follow him on Twitter (@nlubell).