Live Seminar: Emerging Challenges in the Age of Drones: Targeted Killings and Humanitarian Protection




Targeted attacks from unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have become an essential feature of American counterterrorism policy since President Barack Obama took office in 2009. U.S. officials praise drone warfare as the most effective way to eliminate top Al-Qaida and Taliban members, and therefore, combat terrorism. Conversely, human rights groups and legal scholars oppose this practice because drone technology confers an unprecedented power to kill away from the traditional battlefields and without the legal accountability and due process accorded in law enforcement settings. 

In addition to “personality strikes”, aimed at known high-value individuals suspected of engaging in terrorist activities, critics of the U.S. drone program point to “signature strikes”, i.e. the targeting of individuals who bear defining characteristics associated with terrorist activities, to argue that the United States may be exposing innocent civilians to attacks. Beginning with the first reported targeted killing in Yemen in 2002, when six Al-Qaida suspects, including one of its leaders, were killed, estimates suggest that U.S. drones have since killed more than 3,000 suspected terrorists and between 400 and 800 civilians. But the U.S. government claims that civilian casualties are much lower. This controversy over the actual number of civilian deaths stems mainly from the difficulties in distinguishing legitimate targets from innocent civilians in current conflicts. The United States has been criticized for conflating the laws of war with law enforcement and counter-terrorism activities to relax targeting criteria, while simultaneously carrying out preventive attacks against suspected terrorists outside of armed conflict situations in violation of human rights. 

The rise of drone warfare poses additional challenges to those seeking to enhance compliance with international standards of humanitarian protection in the current international security environment. First, drone technology lowers the threshold for using lethal force as a last resort because it allows states to target purported enemies without the need to engage in traditional military or law enforcement operations. In traditional battlefields, the core objective of military operations is to neutralize the capacity of enemy forces to resist. Drone attacks can only take specific individuals out of the hostilities, leaving intact the capacity of enemy forces to regroup and continue their hostile action. Second, drone strikes often involve complex decision-making processes entangled in intelligence gathering and the dispersion of the chain of command. This, coupled with computer algorithms assessing proportionality in attacks that remove discretionary power from drone operators, hinders the possibility of determining who is accountable for breaches of international law. And third, the secrecy and opacity of the drone program run by the CIA in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia creates an accountability deficit, as targeting decisions are not subject to public scrutiny or independent external review. 

Against this backdrop, the Live Web Seminar will address the following questions:

- What limits, if any, does international law impose on targeted killings?

- What are the appropriate criteria for identifying legitimate targets in current conflicts?

- How does the simultaneous reliance on the law of war and the right of self-defense to justify targeted killings defy the rules for the protection of civilians in the battlefield and outside combat zones?

- What strategies and legal mechanisms can be implemented in order to minimize arbitrary targeting decisions and promote accountability for violations of international law resulting from the use of drones?


Moderated By:

Claude Bruderlein (Director, HPCR)

Ofilio Mayorga (Junior Legal Associate, HPCR)



Gabor Rona (Human Rights First)

Philip Alston (NYU Law)

Monica Hakimi (Michigan Law)



Michael Hastings, The Rise of the Killer Drones: How America goes to War in Secret, Rolling Stone, April 16, 2012.


Joe Becker and Scott Shane, Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will, N.Y. Times, May 29, 2012, at A1.


Micah Zenko, How Many Civilians Are Killed by U.S. Drones, Council on Foreign Relations, June 4, 2012.


Steve Coll, Kill or Capture: Obama’s Troubling Targeted-Killing Policy, Daily Comment, The New Yorker, August 12, 2012.


U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s National Security Speech, at Northwestern University School of Law, March 5, 2012.U.S.


Jack Goldsmith, Fire When Ready, Foreign Policy, March 19, 2012.


Mary Ellen O’Connell, When are Drone Killings Illegal, CNN Opinion, August 16, 2012.


Scott Shane, The Moral Case for Drones, N.Y. Times, July 14, 2012, at SR4.


Israeli Supreme Court Ruling on Targeted Killings, HCJ 769/02 Pub. Comm. Against Torture in Isr. v. Gov’t of Isr., December 11, 2005.


Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit challenging U.S. targeted killings.


Gabor Rona, US Targeted Killing Policy Unjustified, JURIST - Hotline, Feb. 24, 2011.


Philip Alston, The CIA and Targeted Killings Beyond Borders, NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 11-64.


Monica Hakimi, A Functional Approach to Targeting and Detention, Michigan Law Review, June 2012.




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