Committee on Human Rights

Flying under the radar: The use of armed drones for targeted killings, especially outside formal war zones, remains contentious while the EU has an opportunity to play an important role in setting international standards on the use of armed drones. How can the EU address the ongoing concerns over armed drones, particularly regarding the lack of transparency, accountability and potential human rights violations?

Ema Myftiu (Chairperson, FI)


Since the extrajudicial killings in Afghanistan in 2001, the use of armed drones has raised controversies over the lawfulness of its employment and the human rights implications that follow. With Member States actively purchasing Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), the EU is faced with the challenge of setting international standards and addressing concerns while maintaining democratic values.

Despite armed drones becoming more and more prevalent, there is still a lack of legislation on a European level that results in legal vagueness when considering the deployment of UCAVs. Drone strikes often operate on the edge of international law with lack of clarity over the applicability of international legal frameworks and principles. Moreover, targeted killings and other lethal military operations conducted via UCAVs have proven to cause enormous humanitarian and environmental impact

As the EU moves towards modern and revolutionised defence systems, it is of great importance to acknowledge the human rights implications that come with UCAVs as well as the role transparency and accountability play in maintaining the rule of law.

Image 1: Eurodrone.

Main Actors

The competence in Justice and Fundamental Rights, as well as Security and Defence, is shared between the EU and Member States. The European Commission is responsible for the adoption of resolutions that directly suggest, recommend, or urge the implementation of common security and defence frameworks in addition to human rights policies. Member States primarily approach human rights and security and defence as national-level matters while respecting the power of unanimously-agreed European policies such as the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the Strategic Framework on Human Rights and Democracy.

The incorporation of said policies is achieved under the supervision of the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (HR/VP). Together with the European Defence Agency (EDA) and the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), the HR/VP assists Member States in the full implementation of the CFSP and the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy.

On an international scale, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) overlooks rising human rights discrepancies, including those deriving from armed conflict, and aims to address them every year. Meanwhile, issues falling under the security and defence umbrella are monitored by the United Nations Security Council who is responsible for the maintenance of peace through settlements between members.

The European Forum on Armed Drones (EFAD) is a civil society network that brings together actors working to promote the rule of law, the prevention of armed conflict, and the protection of human rights. Additionally, the European Centre of Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) is an independent legal and educational organisation that aims to counter injustice and human rights violations through legal interventions. Among non-governmental organisations that work to safeguard the rule of law and human rights, it is worth mentioning The Civil Liberties Union for Europe; a network made of experts that work in close cooperation with countries across Europe to assure open discussions and advocacy on Justice and Fundamental Rights.


A podcast by Mher Harutyunyan (Media Team Member) and Ema Myftiu (Chairperson).

Past Actions Taken

  • One of the key panel discussions of UNHRC held on September 22, 2014, included various arguments and extended discussions over the use of UCAVs under International Humanitarian Law. In the panel, several Member States were asked to hold their stance on the legal provisions and applicability of armed drones.
  • Europe’s engagement with the topic of armed drones began in 2012, with several Members of the European Parliament bringing forward a declaration that voiced their concerns over the targeted killings by UCAVs. In 2014, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the use of armed drones that condemned the unlawful use of UCAVs and urged stakeholders to take action in drafting a common EU policy.
  • A study released by the European Parliament’s Directorate-General on External Policies in 2013 highlighted the human rights implications of the usage of armed drones in warfare, where policy recommendations were included.
  • Currently, there are several projects on military drones operating under the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), which was established by the Council in December 2017. EURODRONE is one of the large-scale projects dedicated to the development of MALE RPAS (armed drone prototype). Additionally, armed drones are to be part of the Future Combat Air System, a new fighter jet platform, under the development of Spain, France and Germany.
  • Member States have had different approaches to drone warfare. The official position of the German government on armed drones in 2018 condemned extrajudicial killings and advocated for the inclusion of armed unmanned vehicles into international disarmament and arms control regimes. The Netherlands, on the other hand, during the UNHRC 2014 panel discussion argued that transparency plays a crucial role in enhancing and assessing the rule of law.

Present: Existing Issues

Humanitarian Impact of Drone Warfare

As a means of revolutionising warfare, the use of UCAVs is thought to reduce the potential risks military tropes face by ceasing human contact in warzones. The ability to have easier access and control while maintaining precision in strikes is expected to lower the threshold in lethal operations engagement. However, despite its advantages, the employment of armed drones raises many questions regarding the humanitarian impact and long-term effects on civilians. Studies show that armed drones expose individuals to physical injuries and permanent mental trauma. In addition to the psychological impact drone strikes have imposed upon the populations of Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, the increased number of civilian casualties furthers the impact of armed drones in the humanitarian spectrum. Moreover, the aftermath of armed conflict inflicted by UCAVs oftentimes results in environmental harm that poses risks to the health of humans and ecosystems.

The deployment of targeted killings and other military operations in international territory is regulated by International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL). However, legal concerns have been depicted when identifying the applicable legal framework in instances of armed drone usage. The existent ties between both frameworks create loopholes and inconsistencies that can serve as legal obstacles for national security. While IHL mentions through the principle of distinctions and proportionality that engagement must be made solely with military targets within armed conflict territory with low expected collateral damage, under IHRL, targeted killings are possible only in limited instances and must abide by the principles of necessity, proportionality and precaution. Bearing in mind the previous use of UCAVs to carry out operations on foreign territory, outside of declared war zones and without the permission of the affected countries, there is a need for clarity and information that will aid in determining the legal provisions of armed drone usage.

Adherence to the Rule of Law (Transparency, Accountability and Oversight)

With armed drone technology evolving and Member States increasingly adding UCAVs to their arsenals, controversies have been raised over their usage, especially with the US example blurring the lines between legal justification and accountability. The lack of transparency makes it hard to affirm accountability in instances of legal misconduct. Obtaining information from governments on military operations is difficult when considering national security interests. Checking legalities and operation procedures before proceeding with strikes and holding Member States accountable becomes unfavourable. Subsequently, the controversies implicated by the lack of information question the adherence to the rule of law and democratic values of the EU.

EU’s Disunited Stance

Despite many EU initiatives to address the issue of the unauthorised use of UCAVs by establishing a common policy with thorough criteria, specifically focusing on targeted killings, a Common Position is yet to be established. As a result, the concern over the lack of legislation on armed drones and the covert enablement of extrajudicial killings remains a challenge. With international law often leaving room for interpretation, the lack of a binding European framework makes Member States vulnerable to uncertainty and conflicts with third countries over the interpretation of international agreements. Moreover, the assistance of several Member States in US armed drone missions has been viewed as undermining EU human rights values. By international law, Member States aiding the US drone programme can also be considered responsible for assisting, or being complicit in, a violation of human rights or humanitarian law.

Future: Challenges Ahead

As armed drones might be closer to becoming standard equipment for most militaries, it is crucial to analyse the discrepancies and implications that come with their usage such as the humanitarian impact and human rights violations.

While there exists no current Common Position on the employment of UCAVs, international and European efforts are continuous. As we think of the future of armed drones, it would be important to ask what the first step of the EU should be to directly face the growing concerns about extrajudicial killings?

While considering the advantages and disadvantages of UCAVs, how can humanitarian implications be addressed by stakeholders? The EU’s intentions on armed drones are also important to understand how transparency, accountability and oversight can be regarded.

Taking a look at a report published by the think tank ‘RAND corporation’ on the rules for targeted killing by drones and the utilisation of armed drones by third countries, what best practises should the EU examine when drafting its own drone policies?