Seductive Drones: Learning from a Decade of Lethal Operations

Mary Ellen O'Connell

Notre Dame Law School

August 19, 2011

Journal of Law, Information & Science, August 2011
Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 11-35

The world’s fleets of unmanned combat vehicles (UCVs) are growing exponentially. This contribution aims to raise awareness that the very existence of UCV technology may well be lowering the inhibitions to kill. At least two sets of data indicate a problem: First, we have evidence from psychological studies that killing at a distance using unmanned launch vehicles may lower the inhibition to kill on the part of operators. Second, we have a decade of evidence of US presidents deploying military force where such force was unlikely to be used prior to the development of UCVs. This evidence indicates that the availability of UCVs lowers political and psychological barriers to killing. At the same time, an increasing number of international law specialists are arguing that it is lawful to kill terrorism suspects wherever they are found or to kill them if they are found in ‘weak states.’ These arguments seem intended to support policy decisions already taken, rather than providing rigorous analysis of the relevant international law.

International law establishes a high bar to lawful resort to lethal force. That high bar is derived from the Just War Doctrine and so reflects not just a legal norm, but a moral norm as well. Much policy on resort to lethal force, by contrast, appears to be related to Realist power politics ideology rather than international legal authority. Within Realism, resort to lethal force, killing, is acceptable to send a message of strength or to promote the perception of power in the form of military power. Even among policy makers not committed to Realist power projection there may be a belief in the utility of lethal military force to suppress terrorism that is not warranted by the record.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 30

Keywords: drone, unmanned combat vehicle, terrorism, counter-terrorism, targeted killing, Just War Theory, Realism, law of armed conflict, human rights, international law

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Date posted: August 20, 2011 ; Last revised: June 1, 2014

Suggested Citation

O'Connell, Mary Ellen, Seductive Drones: Learning from a Decade of Lethal Operations (August 19, 2011). Journal of Law, Information & Science, August 2011; Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 11-35. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1912635

Contact Information

Mary Ellen O'Connell (Contact Author)
Notre Dame Law School ( email )
P.O. Box 780
Notre Dame, IN 46556-0780
United States
574-631-7953 (Phone)

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