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 example when advocates, or norm entrepreneurs, lobby for a new practice’s acceptance. Sometimes, the new practice captures global attention because the entrepreneurs violate existing rules or social norms. Consider protestors in India staging illegal marches to spur changes in collective attitudes about gender-based violence, for example, or angry Hong Kong residents threatening to occupy the central financial district to resist China’s changes to electoral rules. Once the entrepreneurs have the attention of key players, such as policymakers, they attempt to persuade their audience of their cause’s legitimacy. That can include anything from lobbying politicians to launching social media campaigns that go viral. The more successful among them are able to convince their audience that the new norm can harmoniously coexist with current norms. For example, as Sarah Holewinski, the executive director of Civilians in Conflict, has argued in Foreign Affairs, a new norm of “making amends” to civilian victims supports existing civilian protection norms, in addition to furthering state interests. If the new norm sticks around long enough, then, it will become institutionalized.

This process is never fast or easy.

Loading, please wait...

This article is a part of our premium archives.

To continue reading and get full access to our entire archive, please subscribe.

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.