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. Advocates and opponents spar over whether the new principle is a good one, and, if so, what it should enable. For example, a heated debate about the development and use of fully autonomous weapons systems is already underway in the United Nations and other international bodies. When all is said and done, there might be consensus around the issue, and the norm emerges stronger than ever. However, the process of debate can also weaken the new practice, causing it to lose support. For example, many see the lack of international intervention in Syria as a sign that support for military action under the Responsibility to Protect umbrella is waning.

Although IR scholars have generally examined this process as it relates to human rights norms and norms which prohibit certain state behaviors, it could also apply to practices which lift restraints on states, for example the current restraints on targeted killings. And here, the norm entrepreneur is the United States. Initially, its targeted killings, like that of Harethi, were widely viewed as violations of international codes, particularly the right to life and sovereignty. The United States, via Harold Koh, who was legal adviser to the State Department, attempted to legitimize these killings as being consistent with international law -- an effort that was not universally well-received.

The United States made vague arguments when initially justifying bin Laden’s targeted killing as well. Koh, once again, presented the U.S. legal case. Yet immediate reactions to bin Laden’s death and the U.S. defense of it varied from enthusiastic support to silence. Among the supporters of the raid was UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who at the time said, “I am very much relieved by the news that justice has been done to such a mastermind of international terrorism.” 

This notable shift in reactions could have been tied to the target himself. Bin Laden was so widely reviled that his death forced a reconsideration of earlier U.S. arguments -- that targeted killings can serve important counterterror interests more discriminately and more cost-effectively than other methods. 

And since then, although the United States has decreased targeted killings in Pakistan, it has increased them in Yemen. John B. Bellinger III, former legal adviser to both the State Department and the National Security Council, wrote, “European allies, who vigorously criticized the Bush administration for asserting the unilateral right to use force against terrorists in countries outside Afghanistan, have neither supported nor criticized reported U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Instead, they have largely looked the other way, as they did with the killing of Osama bin Laden.” 

Further, sales of drones, often used in targeted killings, have increased substantially since bin Laden’s death. Turkey, China, Iran, and Russia are allegedly jumping aboard the targeted killing bandwagon. France and Italy have purchased or are in the process of purchasing armed drones. And Germany has been accused of enabling the United States to use drones in targeted killing missions launched from the Ramstein military base.   

Finally, global bodies are now attempting to regulate the practice of targeted killings instead of banning it. Ben Emmerson, who headed a 2013 UN investigation on targeted killings, stated on an early 2013 United Nations panel, “this form of warfare is here to stay, and it is completely unacceptable to allow the world to drift blindly toward the precipice without any agreement between states as to the circumstances in which drone strike targeted killings are lawful, and on the safeguards necessary to protect civilians.” Some of these safeguards may include permitting only those trained in international humanitarian law to engage in targeted killings (such as the U.S. military rather than the CIA); holding prompt, impartial, and transparent investigations of unintended civilian deaths; publicly releasing the results of these investigations; prosecuting those who may have criminal responsibility; and developing new global norms on the use of drones outside an armed conflict.   

We may already be witnessing the birth of a new norm. Bin Laden’s death kicked off the process, and its conclusion is anything but fixed. That will depend on the debate that Emmerson has called for. If the global community can agree on what kinds of targeted killings should be permitted consistent with established norms on assassination, sovereignty, and civilian protection, then the practice will progress along its normative journey. However, if the debate fails to generate consensus, the new norm could wither away, and targeted killings could lose their veneer of acceptability. For the sake of civilians and states, an inclusive and meaningful agreement on the acceptable parameters of targeted killings may be the only option. 

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  • BETCY JOSE is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Colorado, Denver.
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