On the Implications of the Use of Drones in International Law

On 23 May 2013, President Obama formally acknowledged that the United States (US) had been taking “lethal, targeted action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces, including with remotely piloted aircraft commonly referred to as drones,” and that it intended to continue doing so because these actions were “effective” and “legal.”1 When these words were pronounced, it was no secret that the US and other countries were embarked in the research, development and use of these unmanned systems.2 As a mater of fact, it was not the frst time that high ranking officials of the US had acknowledged this, though little more was officially disclosed.3 After Obama’s words, opacity remains the policy concerning the frequency and scope of the use of drones by either the US or any other power that possesses them.4 Not only has the general public lacked enough information: “Even the other two branches of federal government … have reportedly not been fully informed of the details of the program.”5 Likewise, there seems to be a clear leap between what official spokespeople and apologetic scholars say on the one hand and what actually happens on the ground on the other.6

The purpose of this paper is to contextualize the challenges that drones imply for international law, particularly in the realm of international human rights law. It has been rightly said that drones are simply new weapons that, as any other, must be used in accordance with existing law.7 In this respect, what the current drone proliferation brings about is the questioning, or a reappraisal, of some very core international law principles and norms; principles and norms that are fully in force and must be respected whether one uses drones or any other armament. In this article, I shall provide an overview of current drone technology and how it is used; I shall subsequently present some of the challenges that these systems bring to international law in three arenas: the means of warfare; the prohibition of the use of force and its exceptions; and international human rights and international humanitarian law (IHL), particularly when drones are used for targeted killing.


Previous post:

Next post: