Are Drones and Human Rights Compatible?

The Brazilian Horus FT-100 flies a short-range surveillance mission. (Nei.brasil/Wikimedia Commons).

The usage of drones as a military tactic has been a long disputed topic, mostly due to the civilian killings and human rights violations they have caused in war. Despite their increased use, the existing legal framework surrounding drones still compete with current interpretations of human rights. This creates an ambiguous space between ethics, law, and emerging technologies that must be clarified.

A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 61 percent of Americans support drone strikes targeting extremists, yet the survey also found that 53 percent of Americans were “very concerned about whether drone strikes put the lives of civilians at risk.” This discrepancy highlights the misunderstanding surrounding drone usage, while also illustrating the conflicting sides of this controversial topic.

The History of US Military Drone Usage

The US first used drones during the Bush administration for targeted killings in 2002, when the CIA attempted to target Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. This initiative resulted in the death of Afghan civilians who were gathering scrap metal.

President Obama immensely expanded the program as a part of the war on terror. In comparison to Bush’s 57 authorized strikes, Obama authorized 563 drone strikes targeting terrorists in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, hoping to combat al-Qaeda while reducing anti-American sentiment towards the strikes.

Currently, the US government has continued to employ these tactics, maintaining that drone strikes offer “surgical-like” precision. However, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the attacks in said countries between January 2009 and December 2015 killed between 384 and 807 civilians, a drastic contrast between the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s report of 64 – 116 “noncombatant” deaths. Although the inherent secrecy of the missions causes the number of strikes and civilian deaths to vary, the discrepancy between government and outside data demonstrates that the government may be lowballing numbers to avoid the political consequences of their actions.

Despite the clear issues with accuracy, the US government continues to utilize drone strikes because current military and popular opinion believe that drones reduce risk to soldiers and prevent civilian casualties. However, the Center for Naval Analyses, which often works closely with the military, found that strikes in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2011 caused 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes by manned fighter jets, thus contradicting US government claims of drone efficiency.

These statistics clearly show the consequences of drones, as they can target individuals while distancing the drone operator’s role in the attack. When the operator is physically removed from war-zone danger, the task becomes comparable to a video game simulation, and the impersonal method of attack dehumanizes the target. By using drones to lower military risk, the US government has perhaps set the precedent for the worldwide use of armed drones.

The lower barrier to force available with drones and the resulting civilian casualties have caused some to compare the human rights abuses under the US military drone program to those under the torture program, further emphasizing the need for legal precedence to regulate the use of armed drones.

Furthermore, when troops are not in peril, US citizens are not as invested in military attacks, and as such, the news of drone attacks is often buried beneath more striking headlines. By burying headlines about humanitarian issues, US civilians are further kept in the dark about the true uses and legality of such drones.

Current Legal Frameworks on the Use of Armed Drones

Within international humanitarian law (IHL), the Geneva Conventions recognize three types of armed conflict, and it is within this legal framework that states civilian casualties are prohibited in armed conflicts. However, the Conventions provide ambiguous definitions of different types of armed conflicts, making the laws that protect civilians from drone strikes during armed conflict difficult to apply to different situations.

Although human rights treaties apply in situations of armed conflict, it is unclear whether this applies to non-state groups and undeclared conflicts due to the ambiguous definitions of armed conflict. In the past, drones have only been used against non-state groups rather than in declared inter-state armed conflict. Thus, the majority of drone strikes were justified on the basis of self-defense against non-state groups, blurring the boundary between war and peace. The difficulty in determining the lawful status of drone attacks translates into a loss of legal protection for civilians in an undeclared conflict.

IHL prioritizes the humane treatment of individuals even during fighting, and it requires that certain principles be met for civilian deaths to be legal. However, even these principles, which include distinguishing military combatants from civilians during attacks and specifying who can be targeted, can vary based on the situation, making it difficult to legally define the difference between “combatant” and “civilian.” Fighting groups can only target individuals directly participating in hostilities, which includes both members of armed forces as well as civilians directly participating in armed conflict. Parties in conflict can also legally target individuals based on a person’s associations with a specific group(s) or ideology. Interestingly, during peacetime, individuals cannot be targeted for their associations, and instead can only be targeted for a person’s direct actions.

IHL further identifies groups that are generally protected, dictating that the sick and wounded, ministers, women, children, journalists, and other benevolent groups of individuals are considered “protected persons” during armed conflict. Additional principles determining legality of civilian deaths dictate that military force must be proportionate to the wartime threat, and there must be military necessity to target the individuals, therefore preventing unlimited warfare.

Drones become subjective within IHL in that their civilian attacks can be justified as legal by claiming internationalized armed conflict or non-international armed conflict, two of the types of armed conflict defined by the Geneva Conventions, even if it is clearly outside of the third definition of armed conflict, international armed conflict. The ambiguous legal definitions for these legal justifications mean that the drone attacks can easily go unprosecuted, thus setting a precedent for future use.

The Future Potential for Drones in Human Rights

While armed drones can result in human rights violations, unarmed drones with cameras can also be used to supplement human rights investigations. Drones offer access to targets when traditional access is unsafe or denied, and they also provide a higher level of detail than advanced satellite technology. US intelligence first used drones to photograph suspected mass graves in Srebrenica in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999, and “very high resolution satellite imagery” has been growing in its use for remote monitoring purposes. In 2017, Human Rights Watch used this technology to obtain images to “investigate the health risks of widespread open burning of household waste in Lebanon,” complementing their ground research.

Yet, while utilizing drones to aid human rights work is a new and promising field, the ambiguities both in the legal framework and ethics make drone usage an increasingly relevant challenge. Drones blur the line between peacetime and armed conflict, making it difficult to legally protect human rights under current international humanitarian law. Only time will tell how technology will further the use of drones for either military or human rights enforcement purposes, and whether the two uses can be reconciled to truly protect civilians.

Current drone use for humanitarian purposes is mainly commissioned by non-governmental organizations, yet these commissions should be expanded to include government involvement in tracking and verifying human rights abuses. If this occurs, government influence could hopefully shift the international dialogue to prioritize human rights and thus end the current lack of response from state actors to humanitarian crises.

This article was based on Dr. Dapo Akande’s lecture “Contemporary Challenges: The Use of Armed Drones” at the Oxford Consortium for Human Rights in Oxford, England, 3/13/18


Jenna Mazza

Jenna is a senior double majoring in International Relations and Spanish with a focus on human rights at the University of Southern California. Her research interests include European foreign policy and social justice issues, and especially international human rights. Based on her summers studying immigration in Spain and human security in the Arctic, her research in human trafficking with the Security and Political Economy (SPEC) Lab, and an internship in Scottish Parliament, she hopes to enter a career in international development. Jenna is passionate about the intersection of human rights and women’s empowerment, and she has contributed leadership to the Global Women’s Narratives Project (in association with UNESCO) and the OWN IT! women’s leadership summit. On campus, Jenna also works at the Immigrants and Global Migration Initiative (IGMI) at the USC Gould School of Law to support Los Angeles’ undocumented population.