Living Under Drones: A Synopsis

From the November-December 2012 PNL #819

compiled by Amelia Ramsey-Lefevre and Ben Kuebrich

In September, NYU and Stanford Law Schools partnered to release the most comprehensive study yet about the effects of drone warfare. Living Under Drones focuses on the emotional, economic and human tolls of drone warfare on Pakistanis from 2004 to the present. Presented here are excerpts and statistics from the study. View the complete report at All page citations are from Living Under Drones.

“Drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.”
- Anonymous father of three (p. 84)

Why Are Civilian Deaths So Underreported?
Most recently [May 2012], officials in the Obama administration asserted that civilian casualties in Pakistan have been “exceedingly rare,” perhaps even in the “single digits” since Obama took office. (32) … A recent exposé in the New York Times partially helped to explain the White House’s astonishingly low estimates by revealing that the Obama administration considers “all military-age males [killed] in a strike zone” to be “combatants . . . unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” … [T]here is little evidence that US authorities have engaged in any effort to visit drone strike sites or to investigate the backgrounds of those killed. (33)

“Double Tap” Deters Rescuers
A father of four, who lost one of his legs in a drone strike, admitted that, “[w]e and other people are so scared of drone attacks now that when there is a drone strike, for two or three hours nobody goes close to [the location of the strike]. We don’t know who [the victims] are, whether they are young or old, because we try to be safe.” (75) … The threat of the “double tap” reportedly deters not only the spontaneous humanitarian instinct of neighbors and bystanders in the immediate vicinity of strikes, but also professional humanitarian workers providing emergency medical relief to the wounded. According to a health professional familiar with North Waziristan, one humanitarian organization had a “policy to not go immediately [to a reported drone strike] because of follow- up strikes. There is a six hour mandatory delay.” (76)

Psychological Damage
In addition to feeling fear, those who live under drones … described emotional breakdowns, running indoors or hiding when drones appear above, fainting, nightmares and other intrusive thoughts, hyper startled reactions to loud noises, outbursts of anger or irritability, and loss of appetite and other physical symptoms. (83)

Illegality of Drone Warfare in Pakistan
In the absence of Pakistani consent, US use of force in Pakistan may not constitute an unlawful violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty if the force is necessary in self-defense in response to an armed attack … Legal experts, including the current UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, have questioned whether “killings carried out in 2012 can be justified as in response to [events] in 2001,” noting that “some states seem to want to invent new laws to justify new practices.” “Anticipatory” self-defense has been offered as a narrow exception, invoked to prevent an attack that is “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.” There is little publicly available evidence to support a claim that each of the US targeted killings in northwest Pakistan meets these standards. Indeed, on currently available evidence, known practices—such as signature strikes, and placing individuals on kill lists for extended periods of time—raise significant questions about how the self-defense test is satisfied. (107-108)
Living Under Drones is available as a free download in PDF format at Under Drones is available as a free download in PDF format at


Amelia and Ben are members of the PNL editorial committee.