Critical Analysis: Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – Unmanned with Unknown Targets

Targets: Yemen.  Pakistan.  Somalia.  Afghanistan.  Libya.  Iraq.  Niger. International laws protect the right to life and drone strikes may well be breaking such laws by killing countless civilians.  There is a “near-certainty” standard that civilians will not become casualties but various sources indicate drone strikes occurring when the target was not in sight and when targets were traveling in close proximity to civilian vehicles.

Since 2002, the U.S. has launched 108 drone strikes in Yemen killing between 775-1,018 people.  Of those, 81-87 were civilians and 31-50 were unknown.  In December 2013, a drone strike in Yemen struck a wedding, killing 12 militants – but, once again, conflicting reports suggest the victims were civilians. The last drone strike occurred on April 21, 2014 killing 55, not counting strikes over this past weekend which hit a civilian vehicle.

Image Source: Western Journalism
US drone strikes overseas has caused many civilian casualties but the uncertainty surrounding the attacks is unsettling. Image Source: Western Journalism

On an even larger scale, since 2004, 307 drone strikes in Pakistan killed between 2,040 and 3,428 people.  Of the thousands, 258-307 civilians were killed and 199-334 “unknowns” were killed.  In Pakistan, drone strikes ceased on Christmas Day 2013 to allow peace talks between the government and the Taliban.

While the “unknown” and civilian casualty rate has decreased during the use of drones, the sheer indefiniteness of the numbers remains disturbing.  Not only is it unclear if drone strikes were involved or if it was the U.S. or another country ordering the attack, we cannot seem to tell whom we are killing.  The U.S.’s policy of secrecy prevents any source from gathering enough information to make accurate statements and leads to a great deal of “best guesses.”  Many demand the U.S. take accountability for its military actions and many demand greater transparency.

The new Amnesty International Annual Report urges the U.S. to conduct a “thorough, impartial and independent investigation” to determine if CIA personnel have violated international law by committing “arbitrary” and “extrajudicial executions.”  A guest columnist to JURIST (a non-profit organization providing objective legal news) suggests some killings appearing unlawful are in fact lawful because of self-defense or under the laws of war because they would not be arbitrary killings.  Furthermore, the columnist suggests lawful targetings can be extrajudicial and not executions because of their targeted nature.  However, one must point out, these targeted killings are killing a great many individuals who are not targeted.

During President Obama’s two terms, there have been at least 397 drone strikes.  President Bush’s term had fewer strikes but more casualties per strike on average.  A new bill that sits before the House of Representatives would force the White House to publish information on covert U.S. drone strike casualties.  The co-sponsored bill would require an annual report that would “provide a modest, but important, measure of transparency and oversight regarding the use of drones.”  The report would disclose injuries and casualties and if casualties are militants, civilians, or others.  The White House would also have to disclose how it defines militants and civilians, which would provide a great deal of insight into the statistics.

While the bill may have a negligible chance of success, the push for greater transparency is clear.  Hopefully as the demand for answers increases, the government’s accountability will increase – or at least the government will give us enough information to make informed decisions about the use of UAVs.


Lindsey Weber is a 2L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and the Projects & Production Editor of the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.