Kenny MacAskill: The UK politician with the power of life and death

Do we have the death penalty in the UK? Of course not, people say. Suspended in 1965 following a backbench MPs bill, the ban was made permanent four years later by Jim Callaghan when Home Secretary. The last person hanged in Scotland was Henry Burnett at Craiginches Prison, Aberdeen, in 1963, though two prisoners were hanged the following year in England.

Yemeni men walk past a mural depicting a US drone and a dove in a yin-yang symbol in the capital Sanaa. picture: MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

As long as the UK is a signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights, the death penalty has to all intents and purposes been abolished.

It’s a position I have always supported as I don’t believe that, other than in war or for the protection of citizens, the state has the right to take a life. Moreover, when it does there should be judicial oversight and parliamentary approval.

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It’s a moral argument for me but equally it’s neither a deterrent nor fool-proof, as mistakes can be made.

But, has the death penalty really been abolished? Drone strikes are targeting UK citizens and individuals stripped of their citizenship and killing them. It has been done without a conviction in a court of law or Judicial oversight. Or even the approval of Parliament or a Parliamentary Committee, secret or otherwise. In 2012 and 2014, two British citizens who had their citizenship removed were killed by US drone strikes in Somalia and in 2015 David Cameron authorised the killing of a UK national in Raqqah, Syria, again by a drone strike.

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None were convicted of any crime or had appeared before any court.

Neither a judge nor any kind of democratic oversight was involved. Death by drone was simply administered. It’s believed that other British and American citizens have been killed in recent years, with a US surveillance programme establishing a “kill list”.

Britain now seems to be joining in though to a lesser extent than the USA. However, US military bases, not just in Nevada but in the UK, seem responsible for the strikes.

Few will shed any tears for those that died. It’s clear that they were involved in terrorist activity. A parliamentary committee that considered the action against the British citizen in Syria concluded that he had posed a risk to public safety here.

Drones are a new weapon of war. Their use is understandable as they avoid risk to pilots or troops and can be deadlier in their delivery, given the covert nature of their approach.

Of, course they’re not outlawed by any article or convention of war. They do, though, dehumanise it in many ways with US military authorities requiring to take steps to ensure service personnel appreciate what in many ways is akin to a grand computer game.

Even the nomenclature used leads to that, with kills described as “splats” and other gamer slang invoked.

But, mistakes have been made. What was thought to be a legitimate terrorist target in Yemen turned out to be a “splat” on a wedding party, with innocents slaughtered by the score. There’ll be numerous others.

They’re described as “collateral” damage, a euphemism as hollow as the Provisional IRA’s use of “legitimate” targets for everyone from British soldiers to Customs Officers.

Drone strikes create a feeling of injustice, allied to a sense of nothing left to lose.

And that could see carnage unleashed in our cities. Terror hasn’t abated but been exacerbated. There’s no quick fix with a lethal drone strike.

Yet, their use is increasing. In the book Dirty Wars by Jeremy Scahill it’s suggested that drone strikes increased under Barack Obama’s Presidency. A list signed off every Tuesday by the President and, as here, without any conviction in a court of law or appearance before a judge, nevermind a right of appeal. Not even any scrutiny or approval by Senate or Congress.

Apparently, everyone can rest assured that it’s conducted according to “Augustinian” principles!

Little satisfaction, though, to those who died or who grieve for the likes of the Yemen wedding party.

In the world in which we live, drone strikes are going to increase. The weapon is here to stay, but its use needs to be regulated.

After all, we’re not at war but if that were to change rules would still have to apply. Even in past terrorist crises such as in Northern Ireland, guidance and laws applied to British soldiers. Yet, drone strikes are used in Syria although we’re not at war in that country and Parliament even formally voted against it.

On what basis can you then launch a drone strike in another country? It begs the question, in what other countries could that be done? Drone strikes may be needed to protect us from attack but surely there needs to be some Parliamentary approval for it, not just a retrospective inquiry with limited powers. Where is it?

For those who may be selected to die, what rights do they possess? For sure, there’ll be instances where it’s impossible. That applies now whether in a combat zone in war or when action has to be taken to protect citizens on our streets.

But, if you’re withdrawing citizenship, appeal rights should apply.

If you’re threatening death, surely some intimation should be given. Moreover, even if that’s not possible surely there should be some judicial or democratic oversight over those selected to die, some independent person to decide whether it’s justified or not?

A decision on information that’s not subject to democratic scrutiny or judicial testing is entirely inadequate. Yet, now we have Gavin Williamson, a Defence Secretary, who’s clearly a man on the political make. My experience in politics is that courage and toughness are invariably in inverse proportions to the rhetoric used. He’s seeking to use drone strikes to promote himself, as US Governors used the electric chair. Boasting about “eliminating” individuals but where, on what basis and decided by whom?

Death by drone there may have to be, but it must be subject to democratic approval and judicial oversight, not political bluster.