Assassination is commonly defined as "political murder." While it is not necessary that the victim of an assassination be a political leader, assassinations are generally killings that target specific individuals for a political purpose, and are often accomplished by means of surprise or treachery. When ordered by a state against leaders of a foreign state, assassinations generally violate international law.
The word assassination first appeared in English in the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare. However, the root of the word, assassin, is much older. It originally comes from the Arabic word hashshashin, which means "eaters of hashish." This Arabic meaning derives from a certain Islamic sect whose members were known for murdering their political opponents after ingesting the drug hashish.
International law distinguishes between state-sponsored assassination and assassination that is not state-sponsored. When an assassination is committed by a group that is not affiliated with a government or by an individual acting alone, it is not state-sponsored. There have been many well-known assassinations of this type throughout history. For example, the Roman general and statesman Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of conspirators in the Roman Senate in 44 BCE. The American Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were also assassinated by individuals who were not acting on behalf of any state, as was the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, whose killer was an escaped convict. Another example of this type of assassination is the murder of Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, who was assassinated by Islamic extremists in his own army, while he was reviewing a military parade in 1981.
Assassinations that are not sponsored by states are usually treated as murders in the countries where they occur. Because no state is responsible, they usually do not violate international law. Except in the case of international criminal law, only states can be held responsible for violating international law.
Under most circumstances, international law prohibits state-sponsored assassination. The United Nations Charter prohibits the aggressive use of force by one state against another. The Charter also prohibits interfering in the territory or affairs of another state. Chapter I of the Charter requires that all states must "settle their international disputes by peaceful means" and must "refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force". When a state sponsors the assassination of the leader of another state, it violates this basic rule of international law.
However, there are two important exceptions to this rule. First, state-sponsored "targeted killings" may sometimes be legal during times of war. Under the law of war, two states that are at war with each other may kill soldiers in the opposing army. The killing of enemy soldiers is not considered illegal assassination because during a war soldiers are said to have a legal "privilege" to kill their enemies. This privilege extends to military leaders, who are often considered fair game as "command-and-control" targets. In some cases, government officials may be fair targets if they are part of the military chain of command.
However, even during times of war a "targeted killing" can only be legal if it does not violate the law of war. A state that uses "treachery" to kill an enemy may be guilty of war crimes. Article 23 of the Hague Convention IV of 1907 provides that "it is especially forbidden . . . to kill or wound treacherously, individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army." Treachery is usually defined as a breach of confidence, such as an attack on an individual who believes that there is no need to fear the attacker. Examples of treachery include attacking while pretending to seek a truce or surrender, attacking while pretending to be injured or sick, or attacking while pretending to be a non-combatant civilian. However, the mere act of surprising an enemy or failing to meet the enemy face-to-face is not enough to constitute treachery. Treacherous assassinations are illegal under the law of war.
The second exception to the general prohibition against state-sponsored assassination is the exception for self-defense. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter grants states an "inherent right" to self-defense if an armed attack against them occurs. If assassination is used as self-defense it may be legal under international law. The self-defense exception does not require that the state be at war, but the assassination must meet the definition of a legitimate act of self-defense.
There are three main requirements for a legitimate act of self-defense. First, self-defense may only be used when the threat of aggression is imminent. This means that defensive force may only be used to defend against an act of aggression that is occurring or is about to occur. Second, force must be necessary in order to defend against the aggression. If there is any other way to defend against the threat, such as a diplomatic solution, it must be used first. Third, the defensive response must be proportionate to the threatened aggression. A state may not use more force than necessary to defend against the threat. Any extra force would be considered an illegal reprisal, and not a legal act of self-defense. Under these criteria, an assassination must be designed to defend against an immediate threat of aggression to be considered a legitimate form of self-defense. The assassination must be the only way to defend against the aggression. Furthermore, the assassination may not be used for reprisals against an attack that has already occurred.
Scholars have debated whether the right to self-defense permits the use of assassination to prevent or deter future attacks. This is generally called "anticipatory self-defense." The more restrictive view is that assassination can only be legal when used to defend against a specific attack that is occurring or is about to occur. Others argue that terrorism and weapons of mass destruction have created a new environment, in which states must be allowed to defend themselves by any means necessary, even before an attack has begun. Israel has frequently used assassination as a kind of anticipatory self-defense. In 1988 its agents killed Abu Jihad, the head of military strategy for the Palestinian Liberation Organization. In 1992 an Israeli helicopter gunship killed Sheik Abbas Musawi, the leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement. In 2004 an Israeli missile killed the spiritual leader of Hamas, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Israel has argued that these killings are necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks, but many international observers view them as reprisals for past acts and, therefore, as illegitimate forms of self-defense.
U.S. Law on State-Sponsored Assassination
The U.S. position on assassination has changed over time. As of the early twenty-first century, U.S. law prohibited the use of assassination. However, although assassination has been prohibited by the U.S. army as a technique of warfare since the Civil War, there have been periods where assassination has been used as an instrument of foreign policy. For example, during the cold war the CIA attempted to assassinate a number of foreign leaders who were thought to be sympathetic to communism. These assassination plots were made public in 1975. A congressional committee lead by Senator Frank Church found that successive U.S. presidents had authorized plans to assassinate five foreign leaders during the 1960s and early 1970s. The targeted leaders included Chilean President Salvador Allende and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, against whom eight unsuccessful assassination plots were authorized.
The Church Committee made clear its disapproval of these tactics and concluded that: "short of war, assassination is incompatible with American principles, international order, and morality. It should be rejected as a tool of foreign policy." The Committee recommended that Congress pass a law to make assassination illegal. Congress, however, has never passed such a law. Instead, U.S. policy on assassination has been governed by a series of Executive Orders, beginning in 1976. These orders have prohibited employees of the United States from engaging in assassination during peacetime, but have not defined the exact meaning of assassination. The absence of a precise definition has given U.S. Presidents leeway to order missions that some observers have viewed as assassination attempts.
For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, the U.S. launched several military attacks that were most likely designed to kill specific individuals. In 1986, the Reagan administration launched air strikes against Libya and targeted the army barracks where Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was known to be sleeping. In 1998, in retaliation for the al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa, the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles against a training camp in Afghanistan with the hope of killing Osama bin Laden.
International Criminal Responsibility
Assassination is generally considered a violation of the international law against treachery in war or aggression in times of peace. In addition, it is possible, although less likely, that individuals or groups of individuals accused of assassination could be held accountable for committing genocide or crimes against humanity.
An assassination could rise to the level of a crime against humanity only if it was part of a systematic or widespread pattern of attacks against a civilian population. There would have to be a pattern of "extra-judicial killing" of civilians, of which the assassination formed one part. In general, assassinations do not fit this definition because they often occur as single isolated events and involve treachery, often against quasi-military targets, rather than systematic or widespread attacks against civilians.
An assassination could constitute genocide only if the killing was committed with the intention of destroying a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group in part or as a whole. Because assassinations generally target specific individuals for political purposes, they would not often meet this requirement. However, if an assassination that targeted a particular individual was a part of a broader plan to destroy the individual's entire group, it could be viewed as part of a genocide. This might have been the case during the early stages of the Rwandan genocide, when groups of Hutu used written lists to search out and murder specific Tutsi political leaders.
SEE ALSO Crimes Against Humanity; War Crimes
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Brian K. Morgan
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