International Law and the Use of Drones

Drone Predator; photo: RG1033/flickr

First being used for surveillance, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) were initially conceived in the early 1990s for reconnaissance and forward observation roles. However, by 2001, the United States started arming drones with missiles and using them in combat operations. Since then, more than 40 other states and entities are estimated to have acquired the drone technology, including Russia, China, Iran, and Israel.

The first known use of a drone to kill a particular individual occurred against Al- Qaeda’s Mohammed Atef in Afghanistan in November 2001. Later in November 2002, a suspected ‘lieutenant’ in Al-Qaeda was killed along with five other persons in a drone attack in Yemen, carried out by CIA personnel. In 2003, the UN special rapporteur concluded that the Yemen strike constituted a “clear case of extrajudicial killing”.

Within states, international human rights law prohibits governments from using excessive force against individual groups; governments may only resort to military force if an armed opposition involves significant force. The normal standards can be found in the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Despite this clear law, US officials argue that because the 9/11 attacks involved significant force, the US can target and kill Al-Qaeda members and other suspected terrorists and militants without warning, wherever they are found.


The ISN Quiz: The Future of Warfare

This week’s Special Report Drones: War from Afar highlights the pros and cons of using the craft in warfare.

Test your drone knowlege in this week’s ISN Quiz!



ISN Weekly Theme: Drones in Modern Warfare

US soldiers in Iraq flying a drone
US soldiers in Iraq flying a drone, photo: US Army Korea/ flickr

This week the ISN weighs in on the debate about drones, exploring both the risks and benefits associated with their use in modern warfare. The main challenge is to match the reality of the battlefield with theoretical, strategic and operational clarity and to catch up, both analytically and legally, with technological advances.

In our Special Report this week:

  • An Analysis by Micah Zenko looks at the pros and cons of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), including lower morale among drone pilots, eroding pilot skills, as well as network safety issues and argues that caution and a broader strategic context are prerequisites for the successful deployment of these tools.
  • In this week’s Podcast Peter W Singer of the Brookings Institution discusses the importance of matching our analytical, theoretical and legal understanding of 21st century warfare with the science fiction-like capabilities of modern robotic technology.
  • In our News section, Security Watch articles on technological innovations and ethical questions in military robotics, the issue of robot autonomy on the battlefield, and much more.
  • In Publications papers from our Digital Library, including an Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS) paper examining US and Pakistani strategy in light of drone attacks in Pakistan.
  • Primary Resources includes a United States Air Force report on the future of unmanned aircraft systems.
  • Links to relevant websites, among them a detailed Defense Science & Technology Agency article on developmental trends in drone technology.
  • The IR Directory lists relevant organizations, including the Space Daily, a news network covering science and technology issues in the field.