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Drone Deaths Violate Human Rights: The Applicability of the ICCPR to Civilian Deaths Caused by Drones

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This article argues that the thousands of lethal drone strikes conducted since 2001 violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and in particular, the right to life. The analysis provided is also applicable to the right to life enshrined in customary international law and regional human rights treaties. While most legal and academic commentary on deaths caused by drones has focused on an international humanitarian law (IHL) framework—perhaps because the primary weaponised drone user, the United States, insists that this is the appropriate legal context—this article argues that a human rights framework for assessing lethal drone strikes is preferable, useful, and necessary. Not only is it likely that the so-called war on terror is a semantic rather than a legal war, the ICCPR continues to apply during conflict. Moreover, opacity surrounds most lethal drone strikes, which the Trump administration appears likely to increase, while simultaneously reducing Obama-era safeguards. In that context, a human rights assessment, which will be inherently more stringent towards fatalities than an IHL framework, is urgently needed. The article concludes that the right to life attaches to everyone regardless of the territory in which they are targeted; that effective jurisdiction and control is satisfied upon ability to lethally target an individual; that relevant ICCPR rights apply in ungoverned territories as well; and that the threat of terrorism does not displace these rights or the applicability of the ICCPR.

Affiliations: 1: Lecturer in Law, Brunel Law School, Brunel University London,


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