Drone strikes in Pakistan

High court rejects first UK challenge to CIA’s drone campaign

Photo via Shutterstock, image ref 36065104

The Royal Courts of Justice – photo: Shutterstock

A London court has ruled against examining intelligence-sharing by GCHQ that leads to CIA drone strikes, claiming it would ‘imperil relations’ with the US.


‘By avoiding judicial scrutiny over drone attacks… this government is showing a disturbing desire to put itself above the law.’
Kat Craig, legal director of Reprieve

The case was brought by Noor Khan, a Pakistani national whose father was killed in a drone strike in March 2011. The strike, which killed over 40 people, mostly civilians who had gathered to resolve a mining dispute, is one of the bloodiest on record. Khan has also launched court action against drone strikes in Pakistan. His UK case was supported by legal charity Reprieve and solicitors Leigh Day & Co.

Khan’s lawyers argued that in cases where the UK shared intelligence with the US security services on the location of suspects, knowing that this may be used to kill them with drone strikes, the GCHQ agents responsible may be committing crimes including accessory to murder. The case was an application for a judicial review of the UK’s intelligence-sharing policy in cases where the information might lead to drone strikes.

But Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Simon yesterday rejected the application.

‘It is plain, from the nature of the claims, that the purpose of the proceedings in England and in Pakistan is to persuade a court to do what it can to stop further strikes by drones operated by the United States,’ said Lord Justice Moses in his written response.


‘We are disappointed that the court has decided not to engage in this very important issue, leaving our client no option but to appeal the decision. This claim raises very serious questions and issues about the UK’s involvement in the CIA drone attacks in Pakistan.’
Rosa Curling, Assistant Solicitor, Leigh Day & Co 

He cited a legal principle whereby ‘the courts will not sit in judgment on the sovereign acts of a foreign state’; breaking with this principle would ‘imperil relations between the states,’ he added.

Related article: Evidence in British court contradicts CIA drone claims 

In order to decide whether GCHQ agents might be open to prosecution if they shared information with the CIA that was used to target drone strikes, a UK court would have to rule on whether the CIA’s campaign in Waziristan could be considered a formal war, as this would allow the agents to claim combatant immunity.

‘I reject the suggestion that the argument can be confined to an academic discussion as to the status of the conflict in North Waziristan,’ wrote Lord Justice Moses. ‘The claimant cannot demonstrate that his application will avoid, during the course of the hearing and in the judgment, giving a clear impression that it is the United States’ conduct in North Waziristan which is also on trial.’


‘The claimant cannot demonstrate that his application will avoid, during the course of the hearing and in the judgment, giving a clear impression that it is the United States’ conduct in North Waziristan which is also on trial.’ 
Lord Justice Moses 

The government has never officially confirmed or denied sharing intelligence for drone attacks, although in 2010, a Sunday Times article quoted ‘insiders’ claiming GCHQ had shared information about the locations of al Qaeda and Taliban commanders in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. GCHQ told the Sunday Times all intelligence sharing was in ‘strict accordance’ with the law.

Related article: GCHQ intel sharing for drone strikes may be ‘accessory to murder’ court hears

Noor Khan announced he would appeal the decision. Rosa Curling, of Khan’s solicitors Leigh Day & Co, said: ‘We are disappointed that the court has decided not to engage in this very important issue, leaving our client no option but to appeal the decision. This claim raises very serious questions and issues about the UK’s involvement in the CIA drone attacks in Pakistan. This case seeks to determine the legality of intelligence sharing in relation to GCHQ assistance in CIA drone strikes.’

Kat Craig, legal director of Reprieve, said: ‘By avoiding judicial scrutiny over drone attacks, combined with its ongoing attempts to push through secret courts, this government is showing a disturbing desire to put itself above the law… If the Government is supporting the CIA’s campaign of drone strikes which are illegal, the British public have the right to know.’