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Is the American use of drones legally sound?

Question submitted by Peter Duveen, from USA, May 9, 2013

Answered by: John B. Bellinger III, Adjunct Senior Fellow for International and National Security Law


Both the Bush and Obama administrations have concluded that the use of drones to kill al-Qaeda leaders is permissible under both U.S. domestic law and international law.

Under U.S. domestic law, Presidents Bush and Obama have relied on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Act (AUMF) of September 2001, which authorizes the president to use force against individuals or groups who carried out the September 11 attacks or harbored those who did. The AUMF is now over twelve years old and is in need of revision to authorize the use of force in self-defense against terrorist groups that threaten the United States but may not be associated or affiliated with al-Qaeda.

Obama administration officials have also argued in a series of speeches (by John Brennan, Eric Holder, and Harold Koh) that drone strikes against al-Qaeda leaders are consistent with international law because the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda and because the drone strikes are legitimate uses of force in self defense against future terrorist attacks against the United States. However, the U.S. legal rationale under international law has not been accepted by most other countries, most of whom do not accept that the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda. U.S. allies, UN investigators, and human rights groups have been raising increasing concerns about the legality of U.S. drones strikes, and this has put the Obama Administration into a difficult position.