From 8 October to 8 November, states will be attending the UN General Assembly’s First Committee on Disarmament and International Security in New York.

This year on armed drones, Article 36 has set out the issues, current political context and recommendations for how states should push the issue forward at First Committee and beyond, for Reaching Critical Will of WILPF’s First Committee briefing book.

We will also be reporting for WILPF’s First Committee Monitor on how states and civil society are raising the issue this year. Article 36 recently produced a mapping of state discourse in international forums on the issue of drones in the use of force, and how the issue has been treated in the UN system in recent years, which is available here.

Download our Briefing Book chapter (authored by Alex Holder), or read in full below:


It has been sixteen years since the first armed drone strike was carried out by the United States.[1]Since then, drones have become a central feature of the military landscape. Best estimates suggest that twelve states have conducted military strikes with armed drones,[2]with around 30 states in possession this technology.[3]

Their capacities to engage in extensive and continuous surveillance, to remain undetected, and to negate the risk of physical harm to the attacker make drones a powerful asset. The UN Secretary General observed that it is those same “unique characteristics that make them particularly susceptible to misuse.”[4]

The use of armed drones by a small number of states has resulted in significant harm to communities: injury, death, destruction of property, psychological harm, and the displacement of people. This, despite the narrative of surgical precision that surrounds them.[5]The use of armed drones to conduct ‘signature strikes’ – which takes advantage of intelligence gathering capabilities to attack individuals apparently matching a particular profile – is a strategy of ‘algorithmic killing’ that is highly controversial and has resulted in the deaths of large number of individuals, including civilians, and represents an affront to human dignity.[6]

The rise of drone use has also been characterised by an unacceptable lack of transparency,[7]including a failure to account and provide redress for casualties, undermining victims’ rights and the rule of law. Lack of public and democratic accountability in user states raises the risk that states are engaging in activities that would be rejected as reprehensible if their scope and impact was revealed.

Armed drone use by certain users to target individuals outside of situations of armed conflict has also raised legal concerns. Whilst numerous states have acknowledged that international human rights and humanitarian law apply to the use of drones, many have not yet articulated a detailed position. However, a few powerful states have attempted to justify their use of armed drones by reference to overly broad and dangerous interpretations of the core legal norms that regulate the use of force internationally. The attempts by states to weaken the carefully constructed and long established rules on the use of force and the secrecy surrounding the use of drones has serious implications for the international order and peace and security.

Current context

Concerned that drone use and misuse can lead to profound harm, the international community has recognised the need to take appropriate action. In 2017, seven states raised armed drones in their interventions at the First Committee (Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Ireland, Lebanon, Pakistan and Portugal) variously raising humanitarian, human rights, legal, transparency and accountability concerns and calling for further dialogue and regulation. There were, however, no proposals for resolutions regarding drones.

The US-led process to develop new international political standards for the “responsible export and subsequent use of drones,” initiated following a 2016 political declaration,[8]is still reportedly underway. The risk remains that these standards, if developed, will be less restrictive than export control frameworks that are already in place, and fail to provide meaningful oversight and responsibility for both current and future users. As yet, civil society has received no meaningful engagement on this issue. The process has, moreover, not been open and inclusive to all states, particularly for those from affected communities where drones are used.

The UN Secretary General asserted in his 2018 Disarmament Agenda that drones “pose well-known and documented implications for humanitarian and human rights principles,” pledging that UNIDIR and UNODA will “support member states in exploring common standards for the transfer, holdings and use of unmanned aerial vehicles.”

UNIDIR’s 2017 report ‘Increasing Transparency, Oversight and Accountability of Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’[9]provided extensive analysis of the issues associated with the armed drones, including their use and spread, concluding that there is a “patchwork of measures that does not add up to an effective response to issues” and asserting “there is a need for a transparent and inclusive multilateral process to develop international standards applicable to armed UAVs.” Phase II of this project seeks to facilitate multilateral dialogue to explore possible ways forward.

Beyond the condemnation of current unacceptable practices, an international policy response is needed that addresses the role of drones in the use of force. Multilateral dialogue will be vital to the development of appropriate and effective international standards to address harm from drones and to strengthen existing legal frameworks.


During First Committee, delegations should:

  • Recognise the ethical, legal, humanitarian and peace and security concerns that drones bring to the use of force in the contemporary landscape
  • State their commitment to reducing and addressing harm and ensuring the protection of rights.
  • Acknowledge that current armed drone practices pose a threat to the international legal norms and obligations that govern the use of lethal force, and articulate or re-affirm their support for narrow international legal constraints.
  • Assert the need for transparency in the use of drones by all states, including regarding the legal and policy basis for strikes.
  • Call for the recording of casualties and the addressing of victims’ rights through effective mechanisms, and to make such mechanisms public and accessible to enhance accountability and democratic oversight.
  • Recognise the need for a broader multilateral conversation about what role drones should play in the use of force and the specific limits and standards for their use, and welcome the recommendation from the UNSG that common standards should be developed.

Beyond First Committee, states should

  • Raise these issues in all relevant forums international and regionally, including human rights-focused forums. Ensure that issues related to export control are pursued in relevant forums, such as the Arms Trade Treaty
  • Develop progressive, detailed policies on the use of drones that align with and strengthen international norms.
  • Explore how international standards can be pursued effectively.

Author: Alex Holder 


[1]Chris Woods, “The Story of America’s Very First Drone Strike” The Atlantic, 2011,

[2]Drone Wars UK, “Drone Wars: The Next Generation,” 2018,

[3]New America Foundation, “Who Has What: Countries with Armed Drones,”

[4]UNODA, “Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament,” 2018,

[5]See, for example International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic, NYU School of Law, “Living Under Drones,” 2012,; Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, “The Humanitarian Impact of Drones,”  2017,

[6]Pratap Chatterjee and Christian Stork, “Drone, Inc.: Marketing the Illusion of Precision Killing,” CorpWatch, 2017,

[7]See, for example, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “A Battle for Transparency: Putting Names and Numbers to the US Drone War,” 2018,, Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic & Sana’a Center For Strategic Studies, “Out of the Shadows: Recommendations to Advance Transparency in the use of lethal force,” 2017,

[8]US Department of State, “Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs),” 2016,

[9]UNIDIR, “Increasing Transparency, Oversight and Accountability of Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles,” 2017,