Road to Justice: Against Drones


Author: Apoorv Agarwal


A probe has recently been announced by the United Nations into the impact of Drone strikes on civilians [1]. This investigation by the world body has been long awaited since till date there has been no regulation or laws relating to the use of such technology by state actors.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or UAV’s as they are also known, are in use by many countries worldwide but only a selected few have the capability to launch attacks on targets using this remote controlled technology.


The UN inquiry will officially look into the drone strikes carried out by the United States and United Kingdom in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan with an overlook into the use by Israel on Palestinian Territories as well*.

In the past few years, many questions have been raised about the legality of such attacks by state actors, attacks also termed as Extra-Judicial executions. One important aspect of the use of this technology is that it affects people in foreign lands that are at times not even classified as “Conflict Zones”. Use of combat drones also brings into picture the issue of International Armed Conflict and Non International Armed Conflict, the framework for which is provided by Additional Protocols I and II respectively of Geneva Convention of 1949. Many states are not signatory to Additional Protocol II, that specifically deals with Non International Armed Conflicts, which aims at reducing and avoiding all together civilian casualties. United States and Israel are not signatories to Additional Protocol II [2].

The use of drones in Pakistan’s Tribal areas bordering neighbouring Afghanistan has caused widespread panic and anger amongst the populace for what they say is a campaign of terror by the United States and their complacent ally, the civilian government in power in Pakistan. The citizens are angry that their government is not doing enough to protect them from the threats posed by the use of this new technology.

It has been argued that use of drones violate human rights. Many renowned personalities including at least one former United States President has expressed that the use of drones is a human rights violation [3].

Drone strikes may be precise but the operator can in no way be sure that the intended target is in the area being targeted by the drone. Also, the buzzing sound of the drones is believed to cause psychological effects on the human brain. MEDACT, a United Kingdom based group made up of Health Professionals has in a report raised concerns about psychological damage to civilians living under constant threat of drone strikes [4]. The people do not know if and when they are going to be hit.

The probe will also specifically look into the strikes known as ‘Double Tap’ where in the drones are used to attack the same area twice, i.e. a follow up strike, when people try to rescue those who are hit. Targeting of rescue teams is a War Crime and a crime against humanity as set out in the Geneva Convention of 1949 and the Additional Protocols I and II [5].

This probe will also raise questions on the legality of drone strikes, since in only 2% of such strikes have top militant commanders known to be targeted; secondly, there are a lot of civilian casualties arising from the use of combat drones. According to Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s research, from 2004-2013 in Pakistan alone, there were 362 strikes carried out that have resulted in between 2629 and 3461 dead, of which between 475 and 891 were civilians including 176 children. Also up to 1431 people have been injured as a result of these strikes [6].

What is surprising is the fact of how often these have been used by US President Barak Obama who won the race for the White House in 2008 on the promise of change. If this is what he meant by change, then the past was far better since he is making a large portion of the population fearful of attacks. The psychological warfare aspect that is brought in by drone warfare can be termed as a collective punishment of the civilian populace and is thus prohibited under article 103 of Customary International Humanitarian Law [7]. This use or abuse of drones will not kill terrorists but will help make them.

A good majority of the justice systems of the world is based on principles that a person has a right to a fair and speedy trial and is innocent unless proven otherwise. So, being a mere suspect does not give a country a lawful right to execute the person. The suspect is to be taken into custody and given a fair trial so as to determine the guilt and sentence (if necessary) or else we move back into medieval times where all that mattered was power.

For Further Studies:
  1. UN launches investigation into deadly drone attacks: Google News,  accessed on 25th January, 2013
  2. For the complete list of signatories to Additional Protocol II, visit,
  3. Former US President Jimmy Carter has said that US drone strikes are in violation of Human Rights. See, violations-carter-says/
  4. The MEDACT report, see page 6
  5. See Part II Section 1 of International Humanitarian Law Document provided by the International Committee of the Red Cross
  6. Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s research data can be found on: , accessed on 25th January, 2013
  7. Details about Article 103 can be accessed at ihl/eng/docs/v2_rul_rule103


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