The Trouble With Targeted Killings

The Rise and Fall of an International Norm

A riot police officer stands guard as activists in Sanaa protest U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, April 29, 2013. Khaled Abdullah / Courtesy Reuters

This past month, the African Union commander in Somalia called the targeted killing of Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of al Shabab, a “proud and happy moment for all Africa.” The sentiment echoed that of Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, who tweeted after Osama bin Laden’s death, in 2011, "A world without Osama Bin Laden is a better world. His hatred was a threat to us all." Yet targeted killings have not always been greeted so warmly. A decade ago, Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh called the 2002 targeted killing of Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi "a summary execution that violates human rights." 

So what happened? Open condemnation of such killings as violations of international law has seemed to give way to silence, even as international law has remained relatively unaltered. International relations scholarship sheds some light on the deadlock.

Research has shown that new norms emerge in very particular ways, for

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