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War crimes: Human rights lawyers argue for UK civilians to face war crimes charges

Human rights lawyers will today stand in the High Court to accuse civilian staff working at the Government Communications Head Quarters (GCHQ) of war crimes.

The lawyers will argue that staff that work at GCHQ in Cheltenham are secondary parties to murder, because their information is used by the US to target drone attacks in Pakistan.

The legal action has been brought by firm Leigh Day & Co and the charity Reprieve against foreign secretary William Hague. Mr Hague is the minister responsible for the work of GCHQ, which the prosecution claim provides 'location intelligence' to the US military.

The claim is being brought on behalf of Noor Khan. Mr Khan's father was killed in a drone attack conducted by the US in Pakistan last year. Malik Daud Khan was presiding over a council of elders in North Waziristan when a missile fired from a drone killed more than 40 people.

Drones are unmanned aircraft which are used in growing numbers by the US military to target insurgents in remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Drone attacks have come under fire from Pakistani authorities who have claimed they are a violation of the country's sovereignty. There are also concerns that the use of drones contravenes international human rights laws.

Controversy over the use of drones has been fuelled by several incidents in which civilians have been killed either by poor information or badly targeted strikes.

The proceedings, which are due to commence later today, will challenge the lawfulness of the UK Government complicity with US attacks. They will claim that civilian officers at GCHQ may be guilty of war crimes under the International Criminal Court Act 2001. Under that law, only "lawful combatants" fighting an "international armed conflict" are immune from prosecution. Lawyers will argue that civilians at GCHQ are not combatants and that there is no recognised armed conflict in Pakistan.

Richard Stein is head of human rights law at Leigh Day & Co.

"We believe that there is credible, unchallenged evidence that the secretary of state is operating a policy of passing intelligence to officials or agents of the US Government and that he considers such a policy to be 'in strict accordance' with the law," he said.

"If this is the case, the secretary of state has misunderstood one or more of the principles of international law ... and his policy, if implemented, involves the commission of serious criminal offences by employees of GCHQ or by other officials or agents of the UK government in the UK," he added.

Related links:

Read more on the story (The Guardian)

The articles of the Human Rights Act in detail (FindLaw)