These are the Drones We are Looking For: Legitimizing Violence Through International Law

By Jason MacLeod, Assistant Contributor

Drone strikes came to the forefront of the world’s imagination this October. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms While Countering Terrorism released a detailed report last month and a press release last week, calling for more transparency on civilian casualties. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released reports, Between a Drone and al-Qaeda and Will I Be Next?, respectively, arguing that drone strikes violate international law. A drone documentary, Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, was also released day. In addition, the U.S. carried out a drone attacks in Afghanistan on October 23rd, in Somalia on the 28th, and in Pakistan on the 31st.  On October 30th, a Pakistani family testified about the civilian impact of drone strikes in a sparsely attended hearing before Congress.

nabila-rehman drone testimony

Nine year old Nabila Rehman, pictured above, testified to congress (where only 5 of 535 members of congress attended). She holds up a picture she drew depicting the US drone strike on her Pakistan village which killed her grandmother. She stated, “Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day. Some media outlets reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother’s house. Others reported that the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All of them reported that three, four, five militants were killed.”

These extra-territorial killings have become the norm – not the exception – and they demand our attention.

The growing U.S. drone fleet and China’s aggressive strategy to gain drone technology combined with the advent of continuous war together require us to examine the efficacy and morality of drone strikes under international law and the ethos of our society. The streamlined process of government killings as shown in the graph below demonstrates a logical progression to targeted killings and a general disconnect from the very act of killing itself.

logical progression for drone strikes


Taken together, human rights law and international humanitarian law constitute a complex and interwoven system of standards, under which certain killings are permissible in certain situations. The U.S. and Israel’s legal arguments delineating who can be the subject of targeted killings rests on arguments relating to self-defense and the global war on terrorism. The U.S. asserts that it has the right to use lethal force against enemies in a foreign state when a state “consents or is unable or unwilling” to act. Moreover, the U.S. argues that their drone strikes comply with the legal principles of distinction and proportionality.


In a sense, law is that which succeeds at calling itself law. Robert Cover, in his 1989 Yale Law Review Article Violence and the Word, stated –


Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death… Interpretations in law also constitute justifications for violence which has already occurred or which is about to occur. When interpreters have finished their work, they frequently leave behind victims whose lives have been torn apart by these organized, social practices of violence. Neither legal interpretation nor the violence it occasions may be properly understood apart from one another.


In the case of drone attacks, the law is mobilized to offer a normative gloss to decisions and acts that have already taken place. Thus, law has lost its ability to be a moral compass in this context and instead provides only a thin facade to legitimate immoral actions and extra judicial killings. In his report, cited above, the Special Rapporteur called for transparency in civilian deaths due to drone strikes. The U.S. often fails to mention the innocent lives taken during their unmanned attacks. What about the rights of the innocent?


The most basic right is the right to life. The right to life is laid down in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in Article 4 of the African Charter, in Article 4 of the American Convention on Human Rights and in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is furthermore included in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right to life forms the foundation for human existence and is at the core of human rights law. The right to life has been referred to as “the most important and basic of human rights. It is the foundation from which all human rights spring. If it is infringed, the effects are irreversible.”  The “supreme” status of the right is emphasized by its positioning in human rights treaties. The right to life is the first right in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in the European Convention on Human Rights. UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Christof Heyns emphasized that, “If the right to life is to be secured in the use of drones, it is imperative that the limitations posed by international law on the use of lethal force, as for any other lethal weapon, are strictly adhered to and not weakened by broad justifications of drone strikes.”  There must be a limit imposed by law and morality on the U.S. use of drones in extra-territorial and extra judicial killings. We must not forget or become desensitized to the innocent victims murdered in drone strikes. The separation from human contact in drone strikes and the logical progressions to killing removes the most basic and important emotion- empathy.