Clashing over drones : the legal and normative gap between the United States and the human rights community
Daniel R. Brunstetter and Arturo Jimenez-Bacardi
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The international journal of human rights, Vol. 19, no. 2, February 2015, p. 176-198
The use of lethal drones by the United States (US) marks a paradox insofar as the US government claims that these strikes respect human rights, while the human rights community – including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – raise serious concerns that challenge this claim. Would reconciling these seemingly mutually exclusive human rights narratives regarding drone use lead to the formation of a more robust regime that would provide greater respect for human rights than in the current state of legal and moral ambiguity? In order to explore this question, we examine the evolution of these conflicting discourses through three key frames of legitimation – strategic, legal and normative. We argue that the US government has moved from a strategic-legal framework characterised by a focus on strategic objectives and a permissive view of international humanitarian law to a legal-normative discourse that, by incorporating the principles of just war theory, has restrained the strategic scope of the drone programme while reinforcing the legitimacy of international humanitarian law as the paradigm of choice. Comparatively, we assert that the human rights community has pursued a human rights-centric approach that rejects the more permissive standards of an international humanitarian law-centric legal paradigm, while pushing a normative agenda that seeks to enhance respect for human rights under both international humanitarian law and international human rights law. This includes rejecting the US interpretation of just war principles and appealing to a broader understanding of the right to life norm. Taking these ‘right to life’ considerations seriously raises concerns about whether drones can ever satisfy human rights. In the conclusion, we explore how combining certain elements of these narratives may contribute to an emerging norm on drone use.
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