Arming Drones for Law Enforcement: Challenges and Opportunities for the Protection of Human Life

55 Pages Posted: 27 Jul 2013

See all articles by Ben Clarke

Ben Clarke

University of Notre Dame Australia

Date Written: July 26, 2013


The use of armed drones in law enforcement situations is rare. Before it becomes commonplace, important questions should be raised and answered. How do the rules on the use of force under international human rights law (IHRL) limit the scope for lawful use of armed drones in law enforcement? What challenges and opportunities does this technology offer for the protection of human life? This article examines two straight forward questions: How does international law regulate the use of weaponized drones – whether armed with less lethal weapons (LLWs) or live ammunition – for law enforcement purposes? If it is available and its use is likely to reduce the risk of fatalities in achieving lawful objectives, are States obliged to use this technology? In answering these questions, important moral and ethical issues are highlighted, international standards on use of force and weapons in law enforcement are examined, and recommendations offered on how violations of IHRL can be avoided.

Consider this scenario: X is an unstable country in the midst of civil war. Camp Z, a UN compound in a remote region of X, houses UN local and international civilian staff. The perimeter of Camp Z is guarded by local police. UN security officers provide a second layer of security inside the compound. One day more than 100 angry protesters, some carrying sticks and iron bars, march to the front gates of Camp Z. They demand to be let in. Incensed by an incident widely reported in the local and international media, many are holding banners calling for “justice against westerners” for “attacks on our religion.” Poorly trained, equipped and disciplined, the local police fail to follow standard escalation of force procedures (i.e. audio warnings, show of force, less than lethal force, use of lethal force as a last resort). Although equipped with tear gas and skunk grenades, the police do not use these crowd control agents. Fearful of being overwhelmed and unsure of where their allegiances rest, the police fail to prevent the crowd surging over a waist high barrier and two metre high metal gate. As the crowd enters the compound, some begin smashing vehicles and searching buildings. Others manage to wrestle firearms from police officers. A chant erupts: “kill the westerners.” UN security personnel watch these events with increasing concern. They lacking both the law enforcement weapons needed for large-scale crowd control and the authority to fire on civilians. Heavily outnumbered and fearful of physical violence against themselves and others in the compound, they order UN staff and guests into emergency bunkers. After closing the doors, they call the nearest military base for urgent assistance. By this time, several police have been severely injured and the security officers are receiving incoming fire from members of the crowd. The military base advises that it will take 20 minutes for helicopters and 45 minutes for armoured vehicles to reach the compound. However, drones patrolling a local neighbourhood and armed with crowd control agents (tear gas, skunk grenades, and smoke grenades) and sniper rifles armed with sponge-tipped bullets, beanbag shotgun rounds, and live ammunition, can descend upon the base and hover over the bunkers in a few minutes.

Keywords: armed drones, law enforcement, protection of human life, international human rights law, less lethal weapons

Suggested Citation

Clarke, Ben, Arming Drones for Law Enforcement: Challenges and Opportunities for the Protection of Human Life (July 26, 2013). Available at SSRN: or

Ben Clarke (Contact Author)

University of Notre Dame Australia ( email )

29 Shepherd St. Level 1
Sydney, New South Wales 2008
+61 8 94330607 (Phone)


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