America's Drone Wars

22 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2013 Last revised: 1 Jun 2014

Leila N. Sadat

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law

Date Written: April 2013


The U.S. practice of targeted killing by remotely-piloted unmanned vehicles in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Somalia — popularly referred to as “America’s drone wars” — raises the question of the application of humanitarian law principles to the conduct of America’s longest-running war. Yet it not only presents complex issues of international law but difficult moral and ethical questions. Administration officials and some academics and commentators have praised targeted killing as effective and lawful. Others have criticized it as immoral, illegal, and unproductive. This article concludes that conducting targeted killing operations outside areas of active hostilities violates international law. In addition, even in areas in which targeted killings may be lawful, particular uses of drones may violate international humanitarian law if insufficient attention is paid to principles of proportionality and distinction in their use, particularly as regards decisions of whom, how, and when to target an individual for death. Moreover, to the extent that drones become a means to terrorize a civilian population, their use may be prohibited by international humanitarian law. Finally, decision-makers in the United States must engage not only with the question whether their use of targeted killing is legal, but is a policy that resonates with America’s deepest values and promotes U.S. long term interests, including its interest in international peace and justice.

Keywords: targeted killing, drones, international humanitarian law, war crimes, morality, crimes against humanity, Al Qaeda, Awlaki, self-defense, use of force, international law, foreign relations

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Sadat, Leila N., America's Drone Wars (April 2013). Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Vol. 45, p. 216, 2012; Washington University in St. Louis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 13-04-01. Available at SSRN:

Leila N. Sadat (Contact Author)

Washington University in St. Louis - School of Law ( email )

Campus Box 1120
St. Louis, MO 63130
United States
314-935-6411 (Phone)
314-935-5356 (Fax)

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