Using International Law to Combat Unlawful Targeted Killings

Oxford academic

International law does not offer any recognized definition of what constitutes a ‘targeted killing’ and the confluence of diverse legal frameworks further complicates matters. For the purpose of discussion, targeted killing is defined as the intentional, premeditated, and deliberate use of lethal force, by States or their agents acting under colour of law, or by an organized armed group in armed conflict, against a specific individual who is not in the physical custody of the perpetrator. In recent years such killings have been justified both as a legitimate response to ‘terrorist’ threats and as a necessary response to the challenges of ‘asymmetric warfare’. The invocation of these justifications has led to a highly problematic blurring of the boundaries of the applicable legal frameworks, which include human rights law, the laws of war, and the law applicable to the use of inter-State force. Moreover, the States concerned have often failed to specify the legal justification for their policies, to disclose the safeguards in place to ensure that targeted killings are in fact legal and accurate, or to provide accountability mechanisms for violations. Most troublingly, they have refused to disclose who has been killed, for what reason, and with what collateral consequences. The result has been the displacement of clear legal standards with a vaguely defined licence to kill, and the creation of a major accountability vacuum. This chapter spells out the appropriate legal framework and identifies measures that should be taken to ensure appropriate accountability.

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