Target Acquired: The Ethics of Assassination

Abstract

In international law and the ethics of war, there are a variety of actions which are seen as particularly problematic and presumed to be always or inherently wrong, or in need of some overwhelmingly strong justification to override the presumption against them. One of these actions is assassination, in particular, assassination of heads of state. In this essay I argue that the presumption against assassination is incorrect. In particular, I argue that if in a given scenario war is justified, then assassination of the enemy state's leader is also justified, and in fact ought to be pursued as a means short of war. I defend this position on both consequential and deontic grounds, arguing that assassination is both more discriminate than war and serves to harm only those most responsible for the situation which justifies war in the first place. I conclude by arguing that a norm of assassination, far from being a destabilizing force, as some have argued, would in fact serve to reinforce international norms of rights and respect for persons by making clear that tyrants and would-be oppressors cannot hide behind military forces or notions of sovereignty to protect themselves from judgment and retribution.

Author's Profile

Nathan Gabriel Wood
University of Ghent

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2021-05-18

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