Great-power responsibility, side-effect harms and American drone strikes in Pakistan

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In International Relations (IR), the actions of great powers are usually assessed through their direct effects. Great powers are generally considered to be responsible for the consequences of their actions if they intentionally caused them. Although there is discussion on “double-effects” and “side-effect harms” in the realms of philosophy and political sociology, these largely remain absent from the field of IR. This article bridges that gap by clarifying a set of yardsticks through which side-effect harms of great powers’ actions can be evaluated, including “capacity”, “historical precedent”, “voluntarism” and “unintentional causality”. These yardsticks are deduced through the Theory of Special Responsibilities, which combines elements of Constructivism and the English School. The theoretical framework presented is then applied to the case of American drone strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. A number of terrorists in FATA have relocated elsewhere within Pakistan to escape these strikes, subsequently harming individuals in new locations. The article asks: who bears responsibility for the harm brought to civilians by these dislocated terrorists? Analysis from the perspective of the theoretical framework, constructed and applied here, suggests that even if the US may claim not to have directly intended such an outcome, it still shares some responsibility for the harm to innocent civilians.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)143-162
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Military Ethics
Issue number2
Early online date30 Aug 2016
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2016


  • Great-power responsibility
  • direct effects
  • side-effect harms
  • Pakistan
  • drones
  • terrorist relocation


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