Drones and targeted killing: defining a European position

What Europe needs to do

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The drone strike that has just killed at least 17 people in Pakistan is a reminder that a new era of warfare has dawned. The EU’s response to this has been largely passive. But as the technology spreads (including to EU member states) this must change, and new rules for drone warfare drawn up.

A new ECFR policy brief – “Drones and targeted killing: defining a European position” by Anthony Dworkin – argues that the EU should now take a stronger stand on the issue of drone strikes. At the same time, it should undertake an effort to work with the United States to set a new standard for when drone attacks are permissible. The EU’s position should be based on the idea that outside conventional military theatres lethal force should only be used when there is a serious, imminent threat to innocent life.

  • Although President Obama has embraced a similar position as a matter of policy, he interprets it more loosely. But changes in US policy mean there may be a greater chance for transatlantic dialogue on drones.
  • The EU should press him to follow through on his rhetoric and restrict US drone strikes, and explore the idea of self-defence as their legal basis.
  • The EU should encourage greater transparency and accountability over US drones, and work to end the notion of an unbounded war against terrorist groups. Otherwise there is a danger that China, Russia, and others could use the US drone campaign as a precedent to justify targeted strikes against groups they declare to be enemies.

“Attempting to ban drones is a false choice that would also deprive Europeans of a useful technology. But Europe needs to play an active role in clarifying rules and standards for the use of drone attacks. If not, the benchmark for killing alleged enemies of any state using drones will be too low.” Anthony Dworkin

Useful facts

  • The first US lethal drone strike was in Afghanistan in October 2001.
  • They have also been used in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia; the US recently opened a new drone base in Niger.
  • The Obama administration has increased drone use, and one source estimates that it is responsible for 90 percent of US drone attacks.
  • There are no clear public records of US drone strikes, but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the US has carried out 370 strikes in Pakistan (killing 2,500 to 3,500 people); around 50 in Yemen (killing 240 to 349); and between three and nine in Somalia (killing 7 to 27)
  • The UK has also used armed Unmanned Ariel Vehicles (UAVs); Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland are all considering their use.
  • China and Israel have active drone programmes; Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are planning  their own

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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