Target Saddam - international law on attacks against enemy leaders in wartime

[JURIST] Thursday's apparent (and apparently-failed) attempt by US forces to hit a number of senior Iraqi leaders - including President Saddam Hussein - as a "target of opportunity" raises the question as to whether individual enemy leaders are legally-legitimate targets in wartime. The short answer seems to be "yes":

Both the Hague IV Convention and the laws of war permit attacks upon valid military targets at any time or place. What is included in the category of “targets,” however, is broader than just troops in the field. Noncombatants and civilians can be designated a valid target if they are sufficiently involved in the war effort. For example, any civilian who directly participates in hostilities would be equivalent, for targeting purposes, to a combatant. Although the exact level of involvement necessary for a civilian to become a valid target has not been fully defined legally, it is usually viewed as being a decision in practice based on context. Civilians who work directly to conduct the war, or occupy a role normally held by a soldier, are valid targets. There is also a legal consensus that a civilian head of state who serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces falls within this category.
For more information, see Nathan Canestaro, American Law and Policy on Assassination of Foreign Leaders: The Practicality of Maintaining the Status Quo, 26 Boston College International and Comparative Law Review 1 (2003).

 

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