Are targeted drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen legal under international law?

Oct 11, 2012

The Predator drones flying over Afghanistan and Pakistan are variants of this MQ-9 Reaper. Credit: Lt. Col.. Leslie Pratt/U.S. Air Force via AP

Mary Ellen O’Connell is a fierce critic of America’s drone program, which she says is illegal outside war zones. Among legal scholars, O’Connell is in the minority, but her views are gaining momentum.

Researchers at New York University and Stanford University issued a report last month that claimed many U.S. drone strikes appear to be unlawful because they don’t meet the strict legal standard for killing outside of a war zone, which must be to stop an imminent threat to life when no other means is available.

While some drone strikes may be categorized as war crimes, O’Connell and her supporters agree that the war in Afghanistan is lawful because terrorists who attacked America on September 11, 2001 found refuge there. However, O’Connell maintains drone killings in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia violate laws of war intended to protect non-combatants.

Who should be responsible for monitoring and sanctioning international drone strike activity? Where should the U.S. draw the line when it comes to killing outside of a war zone?


Mary Ellen O’Connell, Professor of International Law and International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame

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