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Condemned by Law: Assassination of Political Dissidents Abroad

3. Status of Assassinations under International Law

Assassinations have historically been defined as politically motivated killings of heads of state, ministers or high ranking officials of nations or international organizations.1 At their very core, however, assassinations involve the unlawful targeting and extrajudicial killing of any individual for political purposes.2 More specifically, assassinations may be characterized as the unlawful targeting and politically motivated killings of individuals perpetrated in violation of the strict requirements of the right to self-defense, and in the absence of judicial due process.3 As such, assassinations violate the most fundamental and sacred human right – the right to life – and their commission is strictly prohibited pursuant to both domestic criminal laws and international law.4 This prohibition applies regardless of the label used to characterize or justify the killings.5

Although there is a surprising paucity of international treaties or conventions specifically defining or regulating “assassinations,”6 a host of existing international and domestic instruments expressly or impliedly prohibit the practice. Examination of these norms reveals that notwithstanding the lack of conventions specifically regulating “assassinations,” there is strong international consensus condemning the targeting and extrajudicial killing of individuals for political purposes.7 It is no surprise, therefore, that the regime’s campaign of targeted killings of political dissidents from 1979 to 1996 violates a host of international and domestic norms, ranging from domestic criminal laws to international human rights laws protecting the right to life.

[1] See Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes Against Internationally Protected Persons, entered into force Feb. 20, 1977, 1035 U.N.T.S. 167 [hereinafter New York Convention]; Patricia Zengel, Assassination and the Law of Armed Conflict, 43 MERCER L. REV. 615 (1992).
[2] Michael N. Schmitt, State-Sponsored Assassination in International and Domestic Law, 17 YALE J. INT’L L. 609, 625 (1992).
[3] See, e.g., Major Tyler J. Harder, Time to Repeal the Assassination Ban of Executive Order 12,333: A Small Step in Clarifying Current Law, 172 MIL. L. REV. 1, 5 (2003) (“[a]lthough there are many definitions of assassination, most definitions contain three common ingredients: an intentional killing, a specifically targeted individual, and a political purpose”).
[4] See infra §§ 3-4.
[5] The changing landscape of international relations since the tragic events of September 11, 2001 has elicited considerable debate regarding the legality of targeted killings under international law. See generally Schmitt, supra note 2. The debate primarily focuses on the criteria used to distinguish murder and extrajudicial killings, which are strictly prohibited under international law, from targeted killings allegedly executed for reasons of self-defense. See id. The “war on terrorism” has seemingly blurred the lines between acceptable and prohibited conduct, prompting some member states in the international community to characterize state-sponsored assassination as the lawful killings of (or preemptive strikes on) terrorists and/or combatants. See id. Despite these academic debates, an examination of customary norms suggests that outside a handful of examples satisfying the strict requirements of the right to selfdefense, assassinations amount to extrajudicial killings strictly proscribed by international law. See, e.g., William C. Banks and Peter Raven-Hansen, Targeted Killing and Assassination: The U.S. Legal Framework, 37 U. RICHMOND L. REV. 667 (2003); Robert F. Turner, It’s Not Really “Assassination”: Legal and Moral Implications of Internationally Targeting Terrorists and Aggressor-State Regime Elites, 37 U. RICHMOND L. REV. 787 (2003).
[6] The word assassination does not appear in the United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions, Hague Conventions, international case law or the Statute of the International Criminal Court. See Jason D. Söderblum, Time to Kill? State Sponsored Assassination and International Law, WORLD INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF EXPERTS, Feb. 12, 2004, available at http://world-ice.com/Articles/Assassinations.pdf. (last visited Oct. 31, 2008).
[7] See, e.g., Jeffrey F. Addicott, Proposal for a New Executive Order on Assassination, 37 U. RICH. L. REV. 751, 760-61 (2003).

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Political Killings, Assassinations, Political Freedom