Clarifying the Rules for Targeted Killing

An Analytical Framework for Policies Involving Long-Range Armed Drones

by Lynn E. Davis, Michael J. McNerney, Michael D. Greenberg

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Research Questions

  1. What are the existing international laws and U.S. policies for the use of long-range armed drones in targeted killing?
  2. What are alternative policy approaches to using drones in targeted killing?
  3. How can international law be translated into U.S. export policies and international norms?

This report highlights a need for greater clarity, specificity, and consistency in U.S. international legal policies involving the use of long-range armed drones in targeted killing. To meet this need, researchers designed a framework for policymakers to use in defining policies that would serve to protect civilians and human rights while also allowing reasonable latitude in transnational conflicts with organized terrorist groups. The framework is built on critical elements of international law related to the use of drones and incorporates alternative legal policy interpretations drawn from administration officials and those critical of U.S. policies. Such a framework could also be used in the design of end-use policies for recipients of U.S. drones as well as by the international community in defining international norms for the use of drones in targeted killing.

Key Findings

What Is the Current Landscape on Drone Use in Targeted Killings?

  • To be deemed legitimate under international law, a targeted killing using drones must successfully pass through a series of interlocking "gates" that guide policy decisions; our analysis of the issues raised by international law shows that governments need to make multiple interpretive judgments.
  • Current U.S. policies on using drones for targeted killing are characterized by ambiguities in interpretations of international law, generality in end-use requirements for recipients of long-range armed drones, and willingness to allow international norms to arise from the practices of countries, including those of the United States.
  • The Obama administration's reluctance to pursue international norms has created an environment in which other countries could employ long-range armed drones in ways that undermine U.S. interests (that is, in secretive fashion, without clear legal foundations, against domestic dissidents, in ways that exacerbate regional tensions).

What Steps Should Be Taken?

  • Policymakers in the United States and other countries need to define an overall approach for targeted killing using long-range armed drones that protects civilians and human rights while also allowing reasonable latitude in the fight against terrorism.
  • Built on critical elements of international law, we have designed an analytical framework for use in defining such an overall approach and defined three illustrative policy approaches with clear differences in their emphasis on flexibility or restrictions in long-range armed drone operations.
  • Adopting an overall approach for the use of drones in targeted killing would provide clarity and specificity in U.S. policies and operations, a basis for building public support both at home and abroad, assurance that trade partners comply with U.S. requirements for their lawful use, and a foundation for a U.S. leadership role in the design of international norms.

This research was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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