The Difference Between the British and American Debates Over the Legality of Drone Strikes: The Brits Seem to Care About International Law
Earlier this week, British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that the UK had conducted a lethal drone strike against one of its own nationals (affiliated with ISIS) in August and that the British government was confident of the strike’s legality under international law.
As an outside observer, I am fascinated at how important the drone strike’s legality under international law seems to be for UK policymakers and commentators. The BBC’s useful analysis of “Who, What, Why: When is it legal to kill your own citizens?” is exclusively focused on the legality of the strike under international law. So is this editorial from the UK newspaper The Independent.
To be sure, the US debate over drone strikes also dealt seriously with international law. But the most powerful legal arguments against drone strikes were those made on the basis of the U.S. Constitution’s Due Process Clause and U.S. statutes criminalizing murder of U.S. nationals abroad. International legality has not played a big part in this litigation, nor even in its broader public debate. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky famously filibustered for a whole day against targeted killings but his legal complaint was wholly constitutional.
But as far as I can tell, there has been little discussion of whether the UK government’s killing of a UK national abroad violates the UK Human Rights Act (incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights) or UK statutory law more generally. I may be missing something, but it does seem a telling difference in the nature of public and legal discourse in the two countries.