Armed Drones Part One: The legal issues

Prepping a Predatorby Emma Fieldhouse, a graduate student in Public Ethics at St. Paul’s University, Ottawa and a Progressive Public Policy Intern at the Rideau Institute.

For almost a decade the Royal Canadian Air Force has been advocating for the Canadian government to purchase a fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones. In 2015 the Liberals announced and promised in their platform that, if elected, long-range surveillance drones would be one of their top equipment priorities. Now, according to the Canadian Press, expressions of interest from manufacturers are expected by the end of April.

On March 7th, Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance told a Senate committee that he believes the Canadian Forces require armed drones. He argued:

In my view there’s little point to having a UAV that can see a danger but can’t strike it if it needs to.

While the military is clearly lobbying for weaponized drones, it is as yet unclear whether strike capabilities will be on the government’s final wish list of features. Comments from the pro-defence Conference of Defence Associations Institute suggest that they may not be.

The Canadian military itself saw a point to using unarmed surveillance drones in Afghanistan to obtain intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data on remote or risky areas. The military argued that surveillance drones reduce risk to military personnel on the ground and increase the efficacy of military operations.

However, while using surveillance drones in combat zones is relatively uncontroversial, acquiring armed drones brings with it a whole range of other legal and ethical issues.

There are no international laws which specifically regulate drones used as weapons, making it hard to determine the legality of individual drone strikes. It often comes down to the specifics of the particular case, and whether it occurred inside or outside an active conflict zone.

One major topic of debate has been the U.S. use of drones for so-called targeted killings, especially in countries where they are not actually at war.

The U.S. asserts the legality of these drone strikes by referring to the doctrine of pre-emptive self defence. One example of such a strike is the attack that killed 150 people, allegedly all members of al-Shabaab, in Somalia earlier this month. Glenn Greenwald, writing in The Intercept about the incident, comments that

even under the “self-defense” theory that the U.S. government invoked, it is allowed — under its own policies promulgated in 2013 — to use lethal force away from an active war zone (e.g., Afghanistan) “only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons.”

Greenwald argues that no evidence has been produced to show that the people killed in Somalia were indeed terrorists and did pose an imminent threat to the United States, and that this is true in many cases where drones have been used.

Another concern is the lack of due legal process for the individuals targeted. U.S. officials have maintained that drone strikes are their last resort, used when they are unable to detain a suspect any other way. Skeptics claim it has become the military’s default strategy for dealing with targeted individuals.

Against this heavy background of ongoing concerns that have been raised with respect to the U.S. drone program, it is likely that Canadian armed drone usage would face similar legal challenges.

The current legal vacuum makes it even more imperative that Canada not acquire weaponized drone capabilities by stealth. If the government is serious about public consultations and input into the ongoing Defence Review, then any decision on drones, armed or otherwise, should await the outcome of that process.


Part One of this two-part blog post explored some of the key legal concerns with weaponized drone usage. Stay tuned for Part Two on the ethics of drones.

Photo credit: USAF




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