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US Needs to Clarify Rules for Targeted Killing by Drone

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U.S. Rules for Targeted Killing Using Drones Need Clarifying

(Source: Rand Corporation; issued Sept 8, 2016)


Current U.S. policies on using drones for targeted killing are characterized by ambiguities in interpretations of international law and too many generalities, despite recent efforts by the Obama administration to clarify the policies, a new RAND Corporation report finds.

The report outlines a framework for designing an approach that would provide greater clarity, specificity and consistency in U.S. international legal policies involving the use of long-range armed drones in targeted killing. For purposes of illustration, the report defines three policy approaches, with clear differences in their emphasis on flexibility or restrictions in the use of long-range armed drones in targeted killing.

“Policymakers in the United States and other countries need to define an overall approach to targeted killing using long-range armed drones that protects civilians and human rights, while also allowing reasonable latitude in the fight against terrorism,” said Lynn Davis, the study's lead author and a senior fellow at RAND, a nonprofit research organization. “Adopting such an approach would provide a basis for building public support at home and abroad for U.S. policies.”

The report's proposed framework for a new drone policy is built on critical elements of international law related to the use of drones, and incorporates alternative legal policy interpretations drawn from administration officials as well as those critical of U.S. policies.

“The United States has an opportunity to take a leadership role in designing international norms for the use of drones in targeted killing,” said Michael McNerney, an author of the report and a senior defense research analyst at RAND.

According to the report, the Obama administration's reluctance to pursue international norms has created an environment where countries could employ long-range armed drones in ways that could harm U.S. interests by exacerbating regional tensions and violating human rights.


Support for the research was provided by the Open Society Foundations. The report, “Clarifying the Rules for Targeted Killing: An Analytical Framework for Policies Involving Long-range Armed Drones,” can be found at www.rand.org. Michael D. Greenberg also co-authored the report.

This report is the second of two exploring the use of drones for military purposes by the United States. The first report, “Armed and Dangerous? UAVs and U.S. Security,” focuses on dispelling a number of myths, including that drones are transforming global warfare and that global proliferation demands new arms control efforts, including blanket restrictions on sales.

The research was conducted within the RAND National Security Research Division. The division conducts research and analysis on defense and national security topics for the U.S. and allied defense, foreign policy, homeland security, and intelligence communities and foundations and other nongovernmental organizations that support defense and national security analysis.


The RAND Corporation is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.


Click here for the full report (24 PDF pages) on the Rand website.

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