There’s been a lot of discussion at Just Security about how international law applies to the use of armed drones, so I wanted to share here a new briefing paper that Amnesty International released Friday on this topic and is presenting at a side event to the UN General Assembly.

Key Principles on the Use and Transfer of Armed Drones has been developed in response to the rapid proliferation of armed drones, and Amnesty’s concerns about their potential use in extrajudicial executions and other unlawful killings around the world. We think these principles are extremely important for U.S. lawmakers to consider.

The United States’ use of armed drones is setting an important precedent for their use by other countries, and regardless of what one may think of how the U.S. has used drones so far, it’s important to recognize that its interpretations of the law – with which we disagree, as I’ve set forth at Just Security before – could lead other countries to similarly stretch the bounds of the law to allow the use of lethal force outside of armed conflict in ways that violate international human rights. As former Obama administration counterterrorism adviser Luke Hartig aptly put it in his latest post: “The advent of the drone, as with many other novel military technologies, presented unique challenges and opportunities that called for its primary user to set and reinforce certain standards.”

This is precisely why many are worried that the United States’ frequent use of this technology may also be used to stretch the concept of “armed conflict” beyond its legally cognizable definition, so that in effect, states around the world come to use lethal weapons to intentionally target individuals who they believe may pose some future danger but who do not pose an imminent threat. For good reason, the law allows such persons to be arrested and interrogated, but not extrajudicially executed. 

Luke’s very interesting post about network targeting and the problems he’s seen with the Obama administration’s “continuing imminence” standard does not contradict this. Indeed, members of enemy armed forces engaged in an armed conflict may not always pose an imminent threat, and the law of armed conflict does not require that they do in order to be considered targetable. The concerns with U.S. policy, however, have been more focused on the United States’ assertion of an authority to target individuals far removed from areas of active hostilities on the basis that they are participating in an armed conflict under a theory of “global war,” which does not comport with international law.

In the paper released Friday, Amnesty International calls on all states to bring their use of armed drones in line with international human rights and humanitarian law, so that unlawful use does not become the global norm.

In particular, Amnesty is calling on all UN member states to:

  • Ensure that their use of armed drones complies with international law, including international human rights law
  • Publicly disclose the legal and policy standards and criteria they apply to the use of armed drones
  • Ensure effective investigations into all cases where there are reasonable grounds to believe that drone strikes have resulted in unlawful killings and/or any civilian casualties
  • Establish rigorous controls on transfers of armed drones, and on assistance to operations of other states using armed drones, and
  • Enable meaningful oversight and remedies.

If the United States would adopt these principles, it would go a long way toward establishing an important norm for other countries to follow.


Image: Getty/Ethan Miller