Assassinating Sovereigns and American Foreign Policy

  • Date:
  • August 13, 2020

[Ed. note: This guest blog post is part of the Center’s Mini-Symposium on papers presented at the 2020 Firearms Law Works-in-Progress Workshop.]

International state-systems are defined by the sovereign independence of each state and therefore do not permit the targeting of sovereign leaders by fellow member states. Assassinating sovereign leaders has been considered so potentially corrosive of international society that its prohibition has been a foundational pillar of world order since the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The New York Convention (1973) criminalises the assassination or any harm of “internationally protected persons”. Practical and moral reasons have buttressed the prohibition against assassination around notions of stability and maintenance of international order. Data from Archigos indicates that the prohibition on targeting sovereign leaders has been so robust that only ten leaders have been assassinated by a foreign state between 1875 and 2004 (Goemans, Gleditsch, and Chiozza 2009, 269–83). Yet this norm has been openly challenged by the US in its strikes on Saddam Hussein (2003) and Muammar Qaddafi (2011). What can help explain this erosion of liberal norms and principles of liberal international order by self-professed liberal hegemon?

The US has a long, chequered relationship with assassination. The myths of 1776 recount of a nation born through resistance to the tyranny that it holds at the core of its identity. Values legitimizing tyrannicide can be imputed from the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. The US has followed the international prohibition against assassination beginning with the Lieber Code (1863), and General Order No. 100 that declared assassination “a relapse into barbarism.” Despite this, the use of assassination in American covert operations has been extremely high and many have argued that the US should be exempt from such prohibitions in times of war, and, as against foreign forms of tyranny. The Church Committee (1975) affirmed this position, asserting that while assassination was contrary to American values “we should not today rule out support for dissident groups seeking to overthrow tyrants…” (emphasis added 1975, 258). The use of assassination was banned by President Ford at this time in the first of a series of Executive Orders that were adopted and modified by all successive presidents. Yet with the War on Terror, the War Powers Resolution, Hughes-Ryan Amendment and the Intelligence Oversight Act, reveal the US maintains a substantial capacity for covert acts of assassination.

The US strikes on Hussein in 2003 were the first open strikes made by one state to target and kill another sovereign. Similar open strikes were made by NATO on Qaddafi during the Libya Intervention in 2011. The alleged conspiracy between terrorist groups and Hussein were used to justify these first assassination attempts. For Qaddafi, it was the assumption of imminent genocide. Alongside the strategic benefits of targeting both leaders, it was the moral arguments observed in the rhetoric of both Presidents Bush and Obama that highlight powerful reasons behind the US wilfully breaching an international prohibition of such importance as assassination. The language President Bush used to justify the strikes were carefully crafted to appeal to American morality: combining a just war against tyranny, promoting human rights, extending democracy, and the assumption of American values as universal goods (Bush Jnr 2003). Importantly, it was only when the WMD failed to materialise that the moral rhetoric of fighting tyranny and promoting freedom begins to be ramped up by the Bush Administration over the security threats or purported links to al Qaeda. Similar moral justifications arose when the US targeted Qaddafi. The rhetoric of ‘freedom versus tyranny’ was a stronger theme from the start, given the UNSC mandate was in preventing imminent genocide. President Obama was clear “The goal [of the intervention] is to make sure that the Libyan people can make a determination about how they want to proceed, and that they’ll be finally free of 40 years of tyranny…” Afterward, Obama praised the death of Qaddafi in moral terms, as something that had removed the “dark shadow of tyranny” and “opening up a democratic era for Libya” (quoted in Louw-Vaudran 2013). Nevertheless, he would later lament what took place in Libya after Qaddafi’s death was the “biggest mistake” of his presidency. The return of slavery to this country has lampooned any notion of a ‘humanitarian’ cause behind the intervention.

In both cases, assassination was recast by the US as a legitimate tool of liberal power, a moral obligation, something intrinsic for transitioning a state from dictatorship to democracy, from incivility to civilisation. The cases show that in the absence of a counter-balancing force/s or interest/s, the US has come to consider illiberal/tyrannical rulers when linked to terrorism (whether this connection is real or perceived) as so threatening and morally egregious as to override the usual normative constraints against targeting sovereign leaders. Moreover, as a democratic state and as leading world power, the US receives both domestic and external legitimations by undertaking this specific form of political violence that is intrinsic to the promotion of American hegemony. The openness of these targeted strikes on Hussein and Qaddafi by the US call into question the strength of the prohibition on assassination, an undermining of its normative fabric from within liberal international order in which the usual mooring bars against direct acts of violence to sovereigns no longer hold. Most of all, these strikes set dangerous precedents for increasing liberal-imperialist moralism in the application of the use of force.


Bush Jnr, George. 2003. Remarks by the President at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy. Washington D.C.

“Church Committee. Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders, Interim Report.” 1975.

Goemans, Henk E., Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, and Giacomo Chiozza. 2009. “Introducing Archigos: A Dataset of Political Leaders.” Journal of Peace Research 46(2): 269–83.

Louw-Vaudran, L. 2013. Did NATO Intervene in Libya Just to Get Rid of Gaddafi. ISS. ISS report.