International Law and Drone Warfare: What is all the Fuss About?

Recently, 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. One of the main military advantages of drones is their greater persistence compared to other platforms. In principle, this should translate into increased precision in targeting. In practice, however, reports suggest that drone strikes over the last decade have caused relatively high levels of civilian casualties. Whether these strikes comply with the principle of precaution in attack is one of the most pressing legal problems raised by drone warfare. Since it is not possible to answer this question without access to the facts, and since States remain reluctant to publish detailed information regarding specific operations, we can expect calls for more transparency to grow ever more vocal. It will be interesting to see how States respond to this. Although not confined to drone warfare, Israel’s recent report on ‘The 2014 Gaza Conflict: Factual and Legal Aspects’ may be a sign of things to come.

It is useful to note that other members of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute have published and spoken on drone warfare too. Sir Paul Newton, the Institute’s Director, served as a member of the Birmingham University Policy Commission which produced a report into ‘The Security Impact of Drones: Challenges and Opportunities for the UK’. Professor Mike Schmitt, an affiliated member of the Institute, has written widely about the legal aspects of drone operations, including ‘The Drone Debate Matures’ and ‘Extraterritorial Lethal Targeting: Deconstructing the Logic of International Law’. Tobias Ruettershof, one of the Institute’s doctoral students, has recently published ‘Terrorising Terrorists: The Jus ad bellum of Drone Operations in Pakistan’.

Below is my Prezi for the event.