Legality of armed drone strikes

Since the turn of the century, the use of drones has proliferated at a rapid rate and is becoming commonplace in the arsenal of states and armed groups throughout the globe.

Considerable controversy surrounds the use of drone strikes. The US has faced ongoing criticism from human rights groups over its unmanned drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The British government also came under attack in 2015 after the targeted killing of two British citizens in Syria. Issues of transparency and accountability abound; states often do not explain their legal interpretations sufficiently or release basic data on their drone programmes, which makes it difficult to assess claims of legality.

The following table shows estimated figured of armed drone strikes (updated 11th July 2017):


IBAHRI Resolution

On 25 May 2017, the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) Council adopted a Resolution on the use of drones, which expresses concerns about the proliferation of the use of armed drones by states and non-state actors to deliver lethal force, and which calls for clarity and transparency in the application of legal framework governing drone strikes.

The resolution states:

  • The use of drones must adhere to the current law governing the use of force: The accepted exceptions to the general prohibition against the threat or use force in Article 2(4) of the Charter of the United Nations are that force may be lawfully used only in cases where consent has been sought and granted from the legitimate government of a territorial state, or in proportionate self-defence, or with the authorisation of the UN Security Council.
  • Whether or not a drone strike occurs in the context of an armed conflict is crucial to assessing its lawfulness: International humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law (IHRL) have different rules on when and how lethal force may be used. The level and type of force inherent in the use of armed drones will rarely, if ever, be lawful under the more protective international human rights law framework outside of armed conflict. It is therefore of utmost importance that the existence of an armed conflict is not lightly assumed. It must be objectively assessed, on the basis of factual circumstances prevailing at the material time.


Accompanying Background Paper

A Background Paper to the resolution has also been made available. It provides an analysis of the legal framework applicable to the use of drones, inside and outside of armed conflict by both state and non-state actors. Further, the Background Paper provides details of the legal context in which the Resolution was adopted, with discussion of cases of drone attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Libya and Syria.




Press & Media

  • News release: Click here to view IBAHRI's news release on the Resolution.
  • Experts for comment: IBAHRI legal experts, Ambassador (ret.) Hans Corell and Dr Phillip Tahmindjis AM, are available to comment on the subject. Click here for more information.