Drones as Techno-legal Assemblages
The US drone strike programme has prompted debate between pro- and anti-drone lawyers over interpretations of self-defence and the laws of war. The debate frequently neglects the effects of drone technology on interpreting these laws. This article argues that drone strikes are best understood as techno-legal assemblages that combine technoscience and law to make killing lawful. The argument proceeds in three parts. Part one analyses the formal legal debate concerning drone strikes. The seeds of the debate are in the US’s response to terrorism in the 1980s, when it developed legal strategies to overcome the obstacles of territorial sovereignty and the ban on assassination. The contemporary debate on the law of self-defence divides into supporters and critics of the US’s legal position. However, the debate neglects what critical drone scholars have argued is an essential link between drone technology and legal ambiguity. Part two analyses the technoscientific practices of drone strikes and how they interpret and implement the laws of war. Armed drones are part of a widespread surveillance system that converts people into information, which the US uses to target individuals. The thresholds that distinguish between military and civilian objects, and that delineate the spaces, temporal order, and legal subjects of conflict, are all interpreted through the lens of the surveillance system. These techno-legal practices become a legal justification for drone killing that goes beyond positive law. Part three argues that drone strikes are techno-legal assemblages that are part of a general collective of assemblages of control. The enmeshing of law and technology in drone strikes reflects the expansion of the law to cover more subjects and more areas. Drone strikes, then, are not a radical break from the law, but a techno-legal continuation of patterns of colonial warfare.