The Institutionalization of Drone Programs, Entering the Normal Functioning of the State

48 Pages Posted: 26 May 2020

See all articles by Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi

Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi

T.M.C. Asser Institute (University of Amsterdam)

Date Written: May 24, 2020


This paper demonstrates how drone strikes were progressively embedded in an institution in the US, thereby substantiating the shared intuition that they deserve to be referred to as part of a “machinery” or a “program”. I show that this process derives from a combination of factors, among which (i) the formation of a bureaucracy, narrowly defined as the structured, harmonized and de-personalized interaction of agents, (ii) the existence and continuing enhancement of technological tools, and (iii) the elaboration of sophisticated legal rationales.

Making sense of the process of institutionalization of drone programs is essential to understand how and, maybe even more importantly, in what form drone programs persist despite the political and legal criticisms they suffer. I argue that when fully institutionalized, the use of drones is implemented in the normal functioning of the State and becomes an organized and permanent solution, and not the temporary or punctual solution, to the problem of transnational jihadist terrorism. By describing the results of the rationalization and legitimation of drone programs through law, the paper brings to light the external power of legality and the pivotal role it can play in the legitimization and stabilization of a practice. In this, it offers another legal perspective in the current discussions on perpetual/forever war.

In concluding remarks, the paper points to the implications that this état des lieux comprises for the concept of sovereignty.

Keywords: Drones, surveillance, sovereignty, State power, institutionalization, bureaucracy, technology, war, international law, rhetoric

Suggested Citation

Mignot-Mahdavi, Rebecca, The Institutionalization of Drone Programs, Entering the Normal Functioning of the State (May 24, 2020). 2019 ESIL Annual Conference, Athens, 12-14 September 2019 , Available at SSRN: or

Rebecca Mignot-Mahdavi (Contact Author)

T.M.C. Asser Institute (University of Amsterdam) ( email )

The Hague

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