Civilian Intelligence Agencies and the Use of Armed Drones

Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law, Vol. 13, pp. 133-173, 2010

41 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2013 Last revised: 2 Jun 2017

See all articles by Ian Henderson

Ian Henderson

Law School, University of Adelaide; Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law

Date Written: January 1, 2010


It is hard to think of a more important legal issue than the legal authority for the use of lethal force. Concurrently with a State’s duty to protect its citizens from foreign threats, people must be protected from illegal acts; and government agents acting on behalf of their State should know their own legal position. The use of remotely piloted aircraft (drones) to conduct lethal strikes by the United States, and particularly the use by civilian intelligence agencies, against people associated with the Taliban and al Qaeda has been the subject of many recent publications. Three main questions on the use of armed drones are: (1) Who can be a legitimate target? (2) Where can that person be legally targeted? (3) Does it make a difference if the military carries out an attack, or whether other civilian government entities may legally conduct such attacks?

The focus of this article is on the third question. However, it is fair to say that the answer to any one of these questions might vary based on the answer to any other of the questions. While the discussion has tended to focus on US activities, and particularly those of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Pakistan and other regions (eg, Yemen), the purpose of this article is to discuss the legal issues in a more general context. The fact that lethal force is being employed by armed drones is not a significant legal distinction. There is no unique law applying to armed drones. Rather, the employment of armed drones need to be analysed under the ordinary principles of international law applying to the resort to the use of force, the rules regulating the use of force and so forth.

Keywords: drones, UAV, UAS, jus ad bellum, use of force, international humanitarian law, law of armed conflict, central intelligence agecny, CIA

Suggested Citation

Henderson, Ian, Civilian Intelligence Agencies and the Use of Armed Drones (January 1, 2010). Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law, Vol. 13, pp. 133-173, 2010, Available at SSRN:

Ian Henderson (Contact Author)

Law School, University of Adelaide ( email )


Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law



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