The Humanitarian Problem with Drones

30 Pages Posted: 6 Mar 2013

See all articles by Frederic Megret

Frederic Megret

McGill University - Faculty of Law

Date Written: March 5, 2013


One of the difficulties with the debate on drones is how it has become a sort of lightning rod for all kinds of anxieties about the use of force in today’s world. Drones are, often problematically, the emblematic weapon for a range of other phenomena and so, unsurprisingly, attract much polemic. The challenge, thus, is to find what is problematic specifically with drones as a technology in armed conflict that could not be dealt with better by invoking a larger genus of problems. In order to do this, I outline a series of ways in which drones have been seen as problematic which I argue are either not specifically humanitarian, or really interested in something else such as what the legal framework applicable to the “war on terror” should be. Separating these very important debates from the humanitarian questions that ought to be asked about drones as such is crucial if one is to make conceptual headway. I then examine the issue of whether there is anything that is specific and/or inherent to drones, and address the question of whether it is that drones cause unwarranted harm to civilians. I seek to explain how, regardless of the answer to that complicated question, drones are much more likely to be perceived as inflicting excessive damage due to their highly discriminatory potential but also, crucially, the way in which they maximize the safety of the drone operator. If anything, it is this aspect that is most specific and novel about drones. I argue that this absolute safety of the operator not only maximizes states’ ability to minimize collateral harm, as has already been observed elsewhere, but also has the potential to fundamentally alter the laws of war’s tolerance for collateral harm, which was always based on the assumption of a tradeoff between harm to the attacker and to “enemy civilians.” It is this tradeoff that is increasingly at risk of being rendered moot. I finish with an attempt to contextualize the drone problem within a larger history of exogenous technological shock to international humanitarian law and how it has addressed them. Overall, the article is interested not just in determining whether drone use may or may not be “legal” but also more broadly how it impacts some of the moral underpinnings of the laws of war.

Keywords: drones, laws of war, international humanitarian law, human rights, war on terror

Suggested Citation

Mégret, Frédéric, The Humanitarian Problem with Drones (March 5, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Frédéric Mégret (Contact Author)

McGill University - Faculty of Law ( email )

3644 Peel Street
Montreal H3A 1W9, Quebec

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