Challenging armed drones

Armed drones are the leading edge of "emerging technologies of violence" - technologies and weapons designed to make killing more remote and that lower the threshold for their use. Drones have been catastrophic for civilian causalities inside and outside of conflict, and have enabled the growing practice of extrajudicial killing, in violation of international law. Reaching Critical Will opposes the use of armed drones and works to highlight the humanitarian suffering they cause as well as their impacts on international law and militarism.

The emergence of drones—or uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) —and other remotely-controlled military equipment poses new challenges to humanitarian and human rights norms and laws. Advocates for their use argue that airstrikes undertaken by armed drones cause less harm to those people that are not the target than other forms of aerial bombing. They point to the lowered risk of casualties on the attacking side and claim that the ability of drones to loiter over an area for extended periods of time enables a more judicious use of force. The discourse that suggests that “drone strikes” are somehow a more humanitarian form of violence than traditional warfare has dominated political and popular discussion, particularly in those countries that make extensive use of UAVs. This discourse is grounded in elite, militarised power structures, where capacities for violence are bolstered by access to high technology and the ability (and willingness) to project violence far beyond one’s own borders. This discourse also makes certain assumptions about the inviolability of military necessity and inevitability of “collateral damage,” which draws the conversation away from the impact of drones on people’s lives.

The technology of the drone is embedded in conceptual and legal frameworks that work together to stretch in new ways normative constraints on the use of force. This enables user states to use the “drone apparatus”—consisting of the weapons system, legitimating discourse, and associated legal, policy, and administrative foundations—to kill people presumed to be a threat far from either the states’ actual jurisdiction or officially designated zones of armed conflict.

Reaching Critical Will's work on drones is focused on emphasising the humanitarian impacts of drones where they are used, as well as where strikes are launched from and on those engaged in operating drone warfare. Our work has a unique gendered perspective. The goal of our engagement is to encourage and support international civil society responses against the use of armed drones inside or outside of armed conflict, to elevate legal, political, and humanitarian arguments against drones, and to constantly challenge the erosion of human rights or humanitarian norms and rules against the use of force, extrajudicial killing, and other harmful practices that are exacerbated or facilitated by armed drones and other autonomous militarised technologies.

Relevant publications

The humanitarian impact of drones

This study examines the significant challenges raised by drones to international law, human rights, ethics and morality, peace and security, environmental protection, development, transparency, surveillance, privacy, policing, gender equality, and more.

Sex and drone strikes: gender and identity in targeting and casualty analysis

This paper from Reaching Critical Will and Article 36 addresses concerns that the sex of individuals is being used as a signifier to designate people as militants in drone strike targeting decisions and post-strike analysis of casualties.


Remote warfare and sexual violence in Djibouti

This report looks at possible connections between foreign military bases and sexual violence in the East African country of Djibouti, from where, among other things, the United States launches drone strikes into Yemen and Somalia.


Other Reaching Critical Will resources

Ray Acheson, "COVID-19: The Risks of Relying on Technology to 'Save Us' From the Coronavirus," Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 15 April 2020

WILPF statement to the Human Rights Council on armed drones and international law, September 2014

Joint civil society initiatives

Joint civil society statement on the US-led drone export initiative, September 2017