Sally Jones, a British member of Islamic State (IS), was reportedly killed by a US drone strike in June 2017 inside Syria. Her 12-year-old son, JoJo, is believed to have been killed alongside her. In news reports about the strike, which has come to light only recently, there has been confusion about the legal framework governing the operation. An article in the Guardian assessed its legality in light of the rules governing the use of force, which determine under what circumstances states may use force in international relations. However, whether or not Jones and her son were lawful targets depends on an entirely different body of law, known as the law of armed conflict – or international humanitarian law – which regulates the conduct of hostilities once an armed conflict has come into existence. In this post, I briefly consider what the law of armed conflict has to say about the strike.
In July 2015, I gave a presentation on the international law aspects of drone warfare at St Athan in Wales. I focused primarily on the questions arising under the rules governing the use of force (jus ad bellum) and those governing the conduct of hostilities (IHL). One of the points I emphasized was that unmanned aerial vehicles are not unlawful weapons systems as such, a point which by now seems to be generally accepted. However, I also suggested that the actual use of these systems does raise a number of legal difficulties.
On 1 May 2014, Professor Michael N Schmitt delivered a seminar on 'Future War and the Evolution of IHL' at Exeter Law School. In his talk, Professor Schmitt offered his thoughts on the relationship between changes in the nature of warfare and the evolution of international humanitarian law. In particular, he asked how future warfare is likely to shape the interpretation and application of international humanitarian law, focusing on the effect of cyber operations, the fielding of autonomous weapon systems, and increased visibility of the battlespace. I had the pleasure of acting as a respondent.
On 29 April 2014, we hosted a day conference on Targeted Killing: Clearing the 'Fog of Law' at the University of Exeter. The event started with a presentation by Professor Michael Schmitt, with Professor Charles Garraway and Dr Anicée Van Engeland acting as respondents. In the afternoon, Major General (ret) Jerry Thomas CB DSO offered his personal view on drone warfare. The event was hosted jointly by the and the Exeter Research Programme in International Law and Military Operations convened under the auspices of Strategy and Security Institute.