Educating for a Just and Sustainable World 

Facebook Twitter  Vimeo


Death by Remote Control: The Deadly use of Drones

On 12 December 2013, a wedding party in Radda, capital of Yemen’s al-Bayda province was struck by an American drone.  The media reported fatalities ranged from 10 to 17 with an additional 30 people wounded in the attack.  The drone struck a convoy of vehicles returning from a wedding when it seems the intended targets were members of al Qaeda.  This deadly attack came seven months after a speech by President Obama in which he pledged to ‘extend oversight of lethal actions’ and raise the threshold for the use of drones toward ensuring the protection of civilians.  He said ‘my administration has worked vigorously to establish a framework that governs our use of force against terrorists - insisting upon clear guidelines, oversight and accountability.’  He added that ‘before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured - the highest standard we can set.’  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) which closely monitors the use of drones has found that covert drone strikes have killed more people in the six months following President Obama’s speech than the six months be

Drones are remotely piloted unmanned aircraft and were initially deployed in the gathering of intelligence, surveillance, targeting and reconnaissance.  Since 1999, however, they have been used in a more deadly role in ‘extraterritorial lethal counter-terrorism operations’ which the Guardian’s Seumas Milne describes as double speak for extrajudicial summary executions and ‘a wanton and criminal killing spree’.  The chief advantage of drones to the US military says Milne is that they ‘can continue to demonstrate global authority and impunity without boots on the ground and loss of US life.’  

President Obama has ‘insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action’ and drones have become very much a weapon of choice for his administration.  He has accelerated the use of drones to a level that exceeds his famously neo-conservative predecessor George W Bush.  Between 2004 and 2009, the Bush administration ordered 52 drone strikes that killed 438, of whom 182 were civilians and 112 children.  By contrast the Obama administration has launched 300 strikes between 2009 and 2012 killing 2,152, of whom 290 were civilians and 64 children.  In confirming that this is a personal crusade for Obama, the New York Times reported that he oversees a counter-terrorism meeting every Tuesday in the White House Situation Room ‘approving every new name on an expanding “kill list”’.

Obama argues that ‘Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones, and are likely to cause more civilian casualties and more local outrage.’  However, Larry Lewis, a principal research scientist at the Center for Naval Analyses, has studied air strikes in Afghanistan from mid-2010 to mid-2011.  His study ‘found that drone strikes in Afghanistan during a year of the protracted conflict caused 10 times more civilian casualties than strikes by manned fighter aircraft.’  The recent strike in Yemen and overall civilian toll resulting from drone attacks flatly refute Obama’s claims for the ‘precision’ of drones.  The BIJ estimates a death toll in Pakistan since 2004 at between 2,537 and 3,646 with civilian casualties between 416 and 951.  In Yemen the estimated total ranges between 287 and 423 over the past decade, of whom 24-71 were civilians.  The lack of precise data on casualties results from the evasion and unaccountability of states using drones.  A recent report by United Nations’ Special Rapporteur Ben Emmerson ‘found that the single greatest obstacle to an evaluation of the civilian impact of drone strikes is lack of transparency, which makes it extremely difficult to assess claims of precision targeting objectively.’  The report recommends that the US ‘release its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted aircraft, together with information on the evaluation methodology used.’

But the US is not the only state guilty of human rights abuses perpetrated through the use of drones.  The UN Rapporteur cited Israel for using drones in the Gaza Strip, most notably during Operation Cast Lead, from 27 December 2008 to 18 January 2009, and Operation Pillar of Defence, from 14 to 21 November 2012.  Both operations resulted in heavy civilian casualties and targeted non-military buildings such as houses and schools.  Moreover, a report launched in December 2013 by War on Want UK reveals that the British government ‘is importing Israel’s drone technologies to be integrated into its armed forces.’  These technologies, the report alleges, have been ‘field tested’ on Palestinians and are part of a lucrative British-Israeli military collaboration that currently runs to 381 UK extant arms licences to Israel worth £7.8 billion’.  These licences are issued ‘Despite previous British government statements that it cannot accept Israeli assurances that British arms will not be deployed against civilians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.’

The deployment of drones therefore seems set to widen despite repeated warnings from human rights groups, non-governmental organisations and the UN that these weapons are lethal, indiscriminate and terrorise civilian populations.  A report by Stanford and New York universities, Living Under Drones, argues that civilians are terrorised 24 hours a day by drone attacks ‘giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities’.  The report challenges the ‘dominant narrative’ that drones are a ‘surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killings” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false.’  The report is based on research in Pakistan and concludes that the number of ‘high-level targets’ killed in that country as a percentage of total casualties is just 2 percent.  It goes on to argue that ‘US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks’.

Drones are therefore not only failing in their stated aims of targeting terrorists and reducing civilian casualties in countries subject to attack by these unmanned aircraft ,but are rapidly filling the ranks of the very organisations such as al Qaeda and the Taliban that they are purportedly trying to defeat.  According to RT, a former State Department official in Yemen has claimed ‘that every US drone killing of an Al-Qaeda operative there creates 40-60 new enemies of America.’   Thus, far from tightening the security of American, British and Israeli citizens, the deployment of drones only makes them more vulnerable to the extremism and hatred stirred by their use.  It is therefore in the interests of all citizens in the global North and South that these weapons be withdrawn from use.

To find out about some of the actions that can be taken to hasten the end of drone attacks visit the web site of the Drones Campaign Network (DCN), ‘a UK-based network of organisations, academics and individuals working together to share information and coordinate collective action in relation to military drones.’  You can also support War on Want UK’s action to end European Union support of Israel’s arm companies and campaign to stop the UK’s arming of Israel.


Bureau of Investigative Journalism, ‘Drone strikes in Yemen’, 26 November 2013, available:, accessed 16 January 2014.

Drone Campaign Network: campaigning to ground the drones, available:, accessed 16 January 2014.

Guardian, ‘US drones more deadly to Afghan citizens than manned aircraft – adviser’, 2 July 2013, available:, accessed 16 January 2014.

Guardian, ‘Britain is up to its neck in US dirty wars and death squads’, 4 December 2013, available:, accessed 16 January 2014.

New York Times, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will”, 29 May 2012, available:, accessed 16 January 2014.

Russia Today, “Fatal error in ‘wedding party’ drone strike prompts UN condemnation”, available:, accessed 17 January 2014.

Russia Today, “Drone attacks ‘create more enemies with every innocent person killed’”, 19 November 2013, available:, accessed 17 January 2014.

Russia Today, “‘Drone strikes killed more civilians than publicly acknowledged’ – UN investigator”, 18 October 2013, available:, accessed 16 January 2014.

Stanford and New York Universities, ‘Living under Drones: death, injury and trauma to civilians from US drone practices in Pakistan’, 2012, available:, accessed 07 July 2016.

United Nations General Assembly, ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism’, 18 September 2013, available:, accessed 16 January 2014.

War on Want UK, ‘Killer Drones: UK complicity in Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people’, December 2013, available:,%20War%20on%20Want.pdf, accessed 16 January 2014.

White House Office of the Press Secretary, ‘Remarks by the President at the National Defense University’, 23 May 2013, available:, accessed 17 January 2014.

Centre for Global Education, 22 January 2014

For further information on the Centre contact