Within Europe, there has been an increasing level of engagement on the issue of military drones, their development, proliferation and use for targeted killings in both the European Union and other European institutions. This resulted in European Parliament (EP) resolutions, public hearings, and a draft Common Position proposed by the EP.

In April 2012, several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) issued a written declaration on the use of drones for targeted killings. In this declaration the MEPs urged the EU to prohibit targeted killings, to ban combat drone operations unless there are criteria published for these operations and information on the victims of these strikes are released, and finally to penalize perpetrators of such unlawful killings.

Two months later, in an article in the New York Times, Reinhard Bütikofer, a German MEP and former Greens Party leader, stated that Europeans should be “asking questions about the use of the drones in the context of international law” but that this was not happening due to a “moral detachment from the issue because, in the case of Germany, we don’t have armed drones”. The Greens Party leader warned that Europe should break its silence, because “the tacitly condoning of targeted killings by European countries could lead to a free-for-all situation, unless standards for use of drones are agreed upon”.

On March 6, 2013 several MEPs organized a briefing on issues of transparency and accountability surrounding the US policy of targeted killings, and the broader human rights and international law implications it has. The briefing led to a statement by MEPs from Portugal and the UK in which they expressed their concern about the legal, moral, ethical and human rights implications of the US’ targeted killing program.

In May 2013, the Directorate General for External Policies of the EU released a study on the human rights implications of the use of drones in warfare. The study included three recommendations for European foreign policy:

  • In its foreign policy, the EU should prioritize the promotion of the rule of law with regard to the development, proliferation and use of unmanned weapon systems.
  • The EU should launch a broad inter-governmental dialogue to foster international consensus on legal standards governing the use of drones, and the legal and ethical constraints that might apply to the future development, proliferation and use of these systems.
  • Based on this international consensus, the EU should work towards either a binding international agreement or a non-binding code of conduct that restricts the use, proliferation and development of drones.


In February 2014, the Transnational Institute released a report, EuroDrone Inc., on the economic and political support which the EU is providing to the drone industry. The report found that, despite “the plethora of initiatives, the EU’s drone policy has coalesced around a decision taken by the European Commission – with no further debate – that drones should be introduced into civilian airspace as soon as is practicably possible.” The report also found that the agenda for drone Research & Defense  subsidies has been set by “thinly accountable officials” and the representatives of defence-corporations, and as a result is “heavily skewed toward the interests of the big defence contractors.” The report also laid out several recommendations to reduce the democratic deficit and safeguard international law and human rights regarding this issue.

On the 27th of February 2014, the EP adopted Resolution 2014/2567(RSP) on the use of remotely piloted aircraft systems, commonly known as ‘drones’, urging the European Union to ‘develop an appropriate policy response at both European and global level which upholds human rights and international humanitarian law’. The Parliament called on the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the Member States, and the Council to develop an appropriate policy response to the steep increase in the use and proliferation of armed drones. The resolution condemns  the illegal use of armed drones, especially the practice of targeted killings outside declared war zones and outside the international legal framework, because ‘unknown numbers of civilians have been killed, seriously injured or traumatized in their daily lives by drone strikes outside declared conflict zones’. In addition, the resolution calls upon EU member states to secure complete transparency and accountability. Member states should strictly refrain from facilitating or participating in extrajudicial targeted killings. The resolution clarifies that participation also entails the sharing of relevant information, which could be used for unlawful targeted killings. If allegations of civilian deaths nevertheless occur, ‘states are under the obligation to conduct prompt, independent investigations and, if the allegations are proved correct, to proceed to public attribution of responsibility, punishment of those responsible and provision of access to redress, including payment of compensation to the families of victims’. Furthermore, the resolution emphasizes the glaring need to integrate the production of armed drones in European and international arms control regimes, as the military drone market is growing rapidly in a so-called regulatory lacuna. The Parliament recalled that ‘any expenditure arising from operations having military or defence implications is excluded from EU budget funding’. For this reason, the EP asked the European Commission to inform the Parliament properly on the use of EU funds for drone development projects.

Almost a year later, on the 27th of January 2015, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe unanimously adopted a resolution titled Drones and Targeted Killings: the Need to Uphold Human Rights and International Law. The Assembly identifies a number of legal issues that arise due to a lack of clarity and the compliance with national and international law. First, in order to protect the national sovereignty and respect territorial integrity of states, targeted killings should only be used as a last resort and when they are deemed absolutely necessary. The Assembly called upon states to respect the limits of IHL and HRL, as some countries have shown to use a permissive interpretation of the judicial concept ‘imminent threat’. It is of utmost importance that states are transparent with regard to authorization procedures for targeted killings and investigate all deaths caused by drone strikes for accountability purposes and for compensation to victims’ relatives. With those measurements, the unlawfulness of combat drone use should be prevented.

Three months later, on the 30th of April 2015, the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT) published a research paper assessing the extent to which Member States are following the example of the United States in using armed drones for (unlawful) targeted killings. In doing so, the research paper aims to assist in ‘distilling a Common EU position on the use of armed drones and a legal framework for counterterrorism-related uses of force’. However, based on questionnaires sent to the ministries of all 28 EU Member States on the official positions on the legal issues related to the use of armed drones, the authors concluded that a unified EU voice and position on the use of armed drones based on the rule of law remains elusive.

On the 28th of April 2016, the EP adopted Resolution 2016/2662(RSP), on the targeting of hospitals and schools as violations of international humanitarian law. It briefly refers to resolution 2014/2567(RSP) and while condemning the attacks on humanitarian aid workers, the resolution reiterated ‘its grave concern over the use of armed drones outside the international legal framework, and insists on its call on the Council to adopt an EU common position on the use of armed drones’.

On the 30th of June 2016, the EP subcommittees on Human Rights and on Security and Defense held a hearing in Brussels with a focus on how the use of drones in the fight against terrorism affects human rights. During the first session, the experts Jennifer Gibson (Reprieve), Radhya Almutawakel (Yemeni Mwatana Organisation for Human Rights) and drone strike victim Faisal Bin Ali Gaber informed the Parliament about issues related to civilian casualties and affected communities, focusing on the applicable legal frameworks, transparency, accountability and the question of meaningful compensation mechanisms. During the second session, Peter Round (European Defence Agency) and Francois Rivasseau (European External Action Service) informed the Parliament about the development of European Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems and what could be a policy response at the European level.

On the 29th of July, 2016, the European Forum on Armed Drones (EFAD) launched the Call to Action, during a roundtable in Brussels. EFAD calls upon states to establish clear policies, prevent complicity, provide transparency, and establish accountability regarding the use of armed drones, and to prevent the proliferation of these instruments.

In October 2016, a group of states led by the US, published a Joint Declaration on the Use and Export of UAVs.  The declaration put forward suggestions linking export of armed drones with international legal principles on their use and potential misuse. 32 European States supported the call, yet EU Members did not make clear what their national policies are on the use of armed drones in relation to targeted killings.

In October 2016, the think tank European Council for Foreign Relations published a policy brief which raises concerns regarding the proper conduct of hostilities in drone warfare, specifically the unlawful targeting of individuals. The policy brief posits that European countries are not clear enough regarding their views on targeted killings or what standard of proof is required before the taking of life is permitted, and that this helps set damaging precedents.

In June 2017, the Human Rights Subcommittee of the EP commissioned a paper which includes a briefing with recommendations on what a future Council decision on the use of armed drones should entail. ‘Towards an EU common position on the use of armed drones’, stipulates the elements necessary for a European-wide policy and describes the legal framework and the criteria needed to be taken up at national levels, in order to reflect the EU’s commitment to the rule of law and former EP Resolutions, especially Resolution 2014/2567(RSP). Various EFAD members provided input for the paper.

In January 2018, in an effort to move the debate on armed drones forward, Greens/EFA MEPs attempted to link draft-legislation on EU-wide promotion of t research, development and production of armed drones to the human rights implications their use has. The EP’s Committee on Foreign Affairs inserted an amendment to the draft opinion, calling for the exclusion of armed drones in the initiative until there is a Council decision which upholds human rights and international humanitarian law, and addresses the issues surrounding the use of armed drones. The amendment was rejected by the European Parliament.

Bodil Valero, Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/ALE Group, proposed amendment 234.
Bodil Valero, Member of the European Parliament for the Greens/ALE Group, proposed amendment 234.

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