The US use of armed drones in northern Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen is now being investigated by the United Nations as a human rights abuse or even a war crime.
If drones produce significant civilian casualties, their use may be a war crime. If their use constitutes a disproportionate response, it could be a war crime. If, as The Bureau of Investigative Journalism claimed, the US sometimes hits a target, waits for sympathetic locals to rush to the aid of the wounded, and then abruptly strikes again, that would definitely be a war crime. Some Pakistani observers, however, are arguing that the Pakistani government’s own aerial bombardment by helicopter gunship or warplane of the tribal belt actually produces significantly more casualties than drone strikes.
Whether or not drone strikes are being conducted in such a manner as to rise to the level of war crimes is an important issue.
The other set of important questions around armed drones are constitutional in nature. The people being targeted by the drones are not an enemy army of a state on which the US has declared war. They are suspected criminals or terrorists. But they haven’t been put on trial.
The permission by Washington and London for drones to kill people involves a clear depriving of those individuals of their right to due process.
The US Department of Justice insists that it has the capability of trying them and determining that they are in the process of attacking the United States, thus permitting them to be killed as a form of self=defense. But that review process occurs entirely within the executive branch, violating the principle of the separation of powers. The executive is the judge, jury and executioner.
The drone program in the United States is hugely anti-democratic because the whole thing is classified. Therefore, it cannot be publicly discussed or debated with the officials behind it, who can neither confirm nor deny its very existence.
In short, the biggest innocent victim of the drones, after the noncombatant adults and children who are killed in the strike, is the United States Constitution.