Targeted killing under international humanitarian law

Justinas Zilinskas , Woulter Declerck

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For the purpose of the article, targeted killing is defined as ‘the premeditated killing of a specific target (person(s)) suspected of terrorism, with explicit or implicit governmental approval.’ The advantage of using the term ‘targeted killing’ is that it is free from preconceived issues of legality, in contrast to such notions as ‘extrajudicial execution’ or ‘assassination’. The starting point is that when committed in the course of an armed conflict a legal analysis of targeted killing shall be based on all applicable rules of international humanitarian law. In that respect the principle of distinction between civilians and combatants remains of the utmost importance, in particular the notion of a civilian taking direct part in hostilities. Furthermore there is no necessity to introduce or to elaborate any new specific rules regarding targeted killing. On the one hand, targeted killing during armed conflict is covered by already existing rules of international humanitarian law. On the other hand, easing down the regime by inventing new rules for targeted killing might not serve the role of law. This would merely exacerbate the discussion on what targeted killing is and what it is not. Disagreement among legal scholars and practitioners, as well as the famous decision of the Israeli Supreme Court in 2006 shows that no general answers can be given and every case of targeted killing should be assessed according to all particular circumstances in each different situation.
The present article analyses the phenomenon of targeted killing. This controversial practice is widespread and has most notoriously been applied by Israel, the USA and Russia. However, the limited scope allows only to focus on the problems of targeted killing under international humanitarian law (law of armed conflict) even though targeted killing can be analysed under various legal regimes, including international human rights law, the right of self- defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8-18
JournalJurisprudencija: mokslo darbai
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2008



  • Targeted killing
  • International Humanitarian Law
  • Terrorism

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