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The Implications of Drones on the Just War Tradition

Abstract

Increasingly, the United States has come to rely on the use of drones to counter the threat posed by terrorists. Drones have arguably enjoyed significant successes in denying terrorists safe haven while limiting civilian casualties and protecting U.S. soldiers, but their use has raised ethical concerns. The aim of this article is to explore some of the ethical issues raised by the use of drones using the just war tradition as a foundation. We argue that drones offer the capacity to extend the threshold of last resort for large-scale wars by allowing a leader to act more proportionately on just cause. However, they may be seen as a level of force short of war to which the principle of last resort does not apply; and their increased usage may ultimately raise jus in bello concerns. While drones are technically capable of improving adherence to jus in bello principles of discrimination and proportionality, concerns regarding transparency and the potentially indiscriminate nature of drone strikes, especially those conduced by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as opposed to the military, may undermine the probability of success in combating terrorism.

Increasingly, the United States has come to rely on the use of drones to counter the threat posed by terrorists. Drones have arguably enjoyed significant successes in denying terrorists safe haven while limiting civilian casualties and protecting U.S. soldiers, but their use has raised ethical concerns. The aim of this article is to explore some of the ethical issues raised by the use of drones using the just war tradition as a foundation. We argue that drones offer the capacity to extend the threshold of last resort for large-scale wars by allowing a leader to act more proportionately on just cause. However, they may be seen as a level of force short of war to which the principle of last resort does not apply; and their increased usage may ultimately raise jus in bello concerns. While drones are technically capable of improving adherence to jus in bello principles of discrimination and proportionality, concerns regarding transparency and the potentially indiscriminate nature of drone strikes, especially those conduced by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as opposed to the military, may undermine the probability of success in combating terrorism.

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Cian O'Driscoll , “Learning the Language of Just War Theory: The Value of Engagement,” Journal of Military Ethics 6, no. 2 (2007), pp. 107–16

Diederik W. Kolff , “Missile Strike Carried Out With Yemini Cooperation—Using UCAVs to Kill Alleged Terrorists: A Professional Approach to the Normative Bases of Military Ethics,” Journal of Military Ethics 2, no. 3 (2003), pp. 240–44

Ronald C. Arkin , “The Case for Ethical Autonomy in Unmanned Systems,” Journal of Military Ethics 9, no. 4 (2010), pp. 332–41

Bradley Jay Strawser , “Moral Predators: The Duty to Employ Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles,” Journal of Military Ethics 9, no. 4 (2010), pp. 342–68

Noel Sharkey , “Saying No! to Lethal Autonomous Targeting,” Journal of Military Ethics 9, no. 4 (2010), pp. 369–83

Alex J. Bellamy , “Is the War on Terror Just?International Relations 19, no. 3 (2005), pp. 275–96

Michael Walzer , “On Fighting Terrorism Justly,” International Relations 21, no. 4 (2007), pp. 480–84

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Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
  • URL: /core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs
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