The Upper Tribunal has ruled that the government can no longer have total secrecy around its actions by citing national security concerns. The court’s decision comes after a rights group challenged the government for refusing to release information about its drone strikes.
The UK government regularly cites ‘national security’ as its reason for suppressing information. After this ruling, however, that’s not going to be as easy to do.
In 2015 RAF drone strikes killed two British citizens, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, in Syria. The same year the UK coordinated with the US on an airstrike that killed Mohammed Emwazi, aka Jihadi John. All three UK citizens were involved with Daesh (Isis/Isil).
Then-Prime Minister David Cameron spoke to Parliament about the strike that killed Khan and Amin. He explained it was a “new departure” for the UK. He also said the attorney general had advised that the action was “entirely lawful”.
So Rights Watch (UK) submitted a freedom of information request (FOI) to find out what the legal advice was. But the government wouldn’t reveal it. Rights Watch (UK) then appealed to the Upper Tribunal. And on 2 January 2018 the government published the Tribunal’s decision.
It ruled that officials cannot block all information related to the security services through a provision in the FoI Act (section 23). Instead, the Tribunal said information that doesn’t contain security intelligence or operational decisions, for example, can be “disaggregated”, meaning separated from the information that does, and potentially released in response to a FoI. Essentially, the court removed the option for the government to cite national security when information is requested and then keep everything related to that FoI secret.
Now the scope of what it can keep secret is more limited, and the rest of the information will be subject to other exemptions in the FoI Act.
The tribunal, however, didn’t order the government to release the legal advice for its drone strikes. But Rights Watch (UK) welcomed its decision to limit the government’s secrecy in the “landmark case”. Yasmine Ahmed, the group’s executive director, commented:
This is a significant push-back against the Government’s expansive claims of secrecy, that would have allowed it to claim absolute secrecy and suppress information that had merely passed through the hands of the security services, corroding the public’s right to information.
Indeed, the public has a right to know what justification the government is using to carry out extrajudicial killing in countries the UK is not at war with. And people have a right to know the scale of UK involvement in US drone operations, given that leaked documents show a spy centre in North Yorkshire has aided “a significant number” of US “capture-kill operations”. Crucially, we also need to know what efforts the government is making to ensure the accuracy of such operations. Because the US’ record is appalling and the UK’s isn’t much better.
The Upper Tribunal’s decision certainly won’t give the British public an imminent answer to all these questions. But it’s a good start.
– Find out more about Rights Watch (UK).
– Take action with the Stop the War Coalition.
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