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2017 | Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Humanitarian & International Disarmament Institute Report The Humanitarian Impact of Drones

This report contains a comprehensive, multi-country and multidisciplinary summary of
the evidence of the harm that drones cause to civilians who, although regularly designated as ‘collateral damage’, in fact account for the overwhelming majority of victims.

The work is divided into two parts. The first part focuses on the various forms of harm, including physical, psychological and environmental harm, the negative impact on international peace and security more broadly and on efforts to increase governmental transparency. The second section analyses these harms from the perspectives of human rights and international law, it considers the gendered impact of the policies and practices of drone programmes, the moral and ethical aspects of drone use and religious perspectives of faith communities regarding armed drones.

Victims face serious hurdles when seeking justice and reparation. In Pakistan, Yemen and Iraq there are examples of families receiving ex gratia payments, but the United States’(US) military is always at pains to point out that these are voluntary payments, intended to express condolence with the victims and their families, and should not be understood as a form of redress (which would imply that the payment answered to a legal obligation. In this regard, see President Obamas Executive Order of July 1st, 2016 in our Drones > Legal Instruments section). More generally, the lack of transparency and accountability always impairs redress for the victims. Greater transparency is critical to ensuring that US policies and practices comply with international and domestic legal standards, and that the US government is held to account. Litigants suing for transparency in relation to the US’ targeted killing programme are routinely confronted with the doctrine of executive branch secrecy. Judicial deference to this doctrine solidifies this defence.

Chapter 7 of the report highlights the legal bases for liability that may attach to states assisting in drone attacks, for instance by the provision of locational intelligence on targets, logistic support or by providing access to landing sites. Assisting states may be challenged within their domestic courts for their own breaches of international law as aiding and abetting wrongdoing. The applicable customary law in the area of assisting states’ responsibility is laid down in Articles 16, 41 and 42 of the International Law Commission’s 2001 Articles on the Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts (ARSIWA). The authors point to the potential effect of coupling State responsibility with the prohibition against aggression as defined in Article 3(f) of the United Nations General Assembly’s resolution 3314.[1] This rule includes liability for allowing territory to be used by other states for aggressive purposes. The authors argue that, in contrast to the more complex elements of the rules set out in ARSIWA, the principle of liability for complicity in aggression where territory is placed at another state’s disposal is relatively straightforward.


[1] A/RES/29/3314 of 14 December 1974 defining the act of aggression. This definition has also been adopted as the standard for the crime of aggression for the purposes of the International Criminal Court.