Cameron’s right to wage war? The executive’s use of homicide to defend Britain

12 Sep 2015


David Cameron’s decision to utilise drone strikes in Syria raises the critical questions of how, and in what circumstances, military action should be used overseas. Does the government have the right to act militarily on foreign soil? Where does law enforcement transition into warfare, and how can we deal with terrorists in disparate parts of the globe?


While witnesses to the events of the past two years can hardly suggest that using drones to hit back at the Islamic State is unjustifiable, some will argue that PM's decision to do so was unnecessary and legally suspect. Firstly, David Cameron approved military action in Syria without the ratification of Parliament, and in doing so violated the sovereignty of a United Nations member state. Secondly, he used deadly military force to hold criminals to account; a form of capital punishment under the guise of the rules of war. While his actions may have been legal, they were certainly undemocratic, and they lacked proper international legitimacy. As a result, assassination in now one step closer towards becoming an acceptable tactic in international affairs.


The loose nature of our constitution makes any use of executive powers difficult to question. David Cameron’s ability to ignore Parliament essentially boils down to the Royal Prerogative – a series of executive powers which give the PM the ability to make decisions on behalf of the Monarch. As a matter of etiquette, Prime Ministers usually adhere to the rulings of Parliament, but in situations of extreme secrecy or haste (such as in a state of war), approval may be impossible to obtain. In the case of the drone strike that killed two British IS fighters, among others, David Cameron didn’t seek it at all. Some may wonder, and rightfully so, whether this was constitutionally sound, as there is no evidence to suggest that action was immediately necessary to prevent an attack on home soil.




“Though the Prime Minister, David Cameron, had the legal authority to proceed [with intervention in Syria] without specific approval from Parliament, politically this option was not viable. The action was halted before it began.


While this development in the power of Parliament is welcome, we should not assume it is secure. A convention is not the same as a legally enforceable right. The executive still has the initiative in deciding when precisely it will seek parliamentary approval, and on what terms.”   


Graham Allen MP, War Making and the Rights of Parliament, The Reform Foundation July 2014




Intervention in Syria has also been opposed by the United Nations, specifically Resolution 2118, adopted in September 2013, which asserted a “commitment to the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” of Syria, and called for “the Syrian people to determine the future of the country”. The Resolution has been broken by numerous groups, including IS fighters, Israel, Russia and the United States; David Cameron has merely followed suit. Nevertheless, it is clear that neither local nor international permission was given to David Cameron to act on behalf of Britain. Though, this is partly due to the fact that neither Parliament nor the UN have reacted quickly enough as the situation in Syria has intensified.


The political situation in Syria today is very different to that of 2013. Two years ago, most of Syria belonged to Assad’s regime and extremist groups had limited capabilities. ISIS grew remarkably in 2014, capturing large parts of northern Syria and conducting attacks in France, Denmark and the US. The situation on the ground progressed at a rate which caught Parliament and the United Nations by surprise. As a result, the Prime Minister has had free rein to act as he sees fit in response to the dynamic threats posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.


This is partly why the PM’s executive powers exist; to enable him/her to react when a rapid response is necessary. Yet, were our recent Syria drone strikes imperative? Both the Prime Minister and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon have argued that the strikes were an act of “self-defence” in anticipation of planned attacks on UK soil. Yet, in legal terms, the threat posed by Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin was neither immediate, nor was the use of military force reasonable to prevent an attack in the UK taking place.


Rather, it is far more credible to view the drone strikes as a military action against the Islamic State than an act of self-defence. They could be seen as an attempt to weaken IS and deter other foreign fighters from joining its cause. The fact that the victims were British legitimises UK involvement to an extent, partly because the UN has been unclear in responding to Syria’s loss of national sovereignty.


It is evident that there are no clear guidelines on how to deal with terrorists overseas, particularly in an unstable country undergoing civil war. It is crucial that both the international community and our Parliament discuss this and develop clearer guidelines so that transgressions by other governments, as well as our own, can be held accountable.

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Want to respond? Submit an article.


We provide a space for reasoned arguments and constructive disagreements.

Help to improve the quality of political debate – support our work today.