The Legality of America's Program of Targeted Killings by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Here is one I made earlier, the full article can be found on e-IR but below you can find the introduction and conclusion. Enjoy!

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The Legality of America’s Program of Targeted Killings by Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

On the 5th of November 2002 a Hellfire missile fired from an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) controlled by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) killed Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi in Yemen.   Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, believed to be the planner of the attack on the USS Cole, became the first targeted killing by the USA as a new phase to the then Global War on Terror (GWOT) emerged and has persisted until today. As the program of targeted killings is run primarily by the CIA from Langley, very little official information has been made available concerning how targets are identified, the rules governing a killing, or the subsequent accountability procedures. While there are restrictions on available information regarding the use of UAVs in targeted killings, since 2002 this practice has continued at a steadily increasing rate and has caused much controversy within the realm of international law. The term targeted killing alone would suggest an association with assassination which is considered illegal under International and US domestic laws, hence a suitable definition of what sets a targeted killing apart from an assassination must be agreed upon. Then it is necessary to assess how justifications are used to carry out these targeted killings within existing international and customary law. Once this legal framework has been identified we can compare the law against the available evidence to help assess how the law compares to targeted killings in practice. This report will then offer an overall assessment of this new practice of targeted killings and its place within international law, concluding that better access to the official legal review process by the US would greatly assist in coming to a much more robust appraisal of the use of targeted killings and its greater impact on international law.


This paper set out to explore the international law surrounding the USA’s program of targeted killings by drones by considering the legal frameworks from which this program can be justified and then looking at the practice in the targeted killings from which we have sufficient information. From the outset the greatest hurdle in collecting evidence for this report has been the lack of access and transparency of the US government on this matter. Regardless, we did manage to investigate the issue of targeted killings enough to come to the conclusion that yes they can be legal under certain specific circumstances, and more specifically the use of force against terrorist organisations “is not inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations”[50]. Yet the targeted killing in Yemen above would not seem to meet the standards of international law as there was no imminent threat or evidence of impending attack. Thus we see a discrepancy emerging. While this report can find evidence to suggest that targeted killings can be carried within the remit of international law in terms of anticipatory self-defence, the strongest argument seems to agree with the US discourse that this is an ongoing armed conflict. The real concern here is that for the only instance we have sufficient data, the US has not abided by international law, and thus gaining access to the overview process of the increasing numbers of targeted killings would seem to be a necessity.


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