Is it legal? Is it useful? Some questions on targeted killing

By Walter Rech (HCAS Core Fellow)

Photo by sibsky2016, Shutterstock

Whether carried out by sharpshooting, poisoning or drone attacks, targeted killing has become a defining tool of war and counterterrorism in the twenty-first century. While the term of ‘targeted’ killing seems to indicate a limited use of force, its significance goes well beyond the elimination of single individuals.

Possible justifications of targeted killing: utilitarian and humanitarian approaches

From a strategic perspective, targeted killing has been deemed useful and effective in particular as a means to neutralize enemy entities that rely on charismatic leadership and may find it difficult to replace charismatic leaders adequately or adjust their internal structure in response to external attacks. This especially applies to criminal groups in the early stages of organizational development or to governmental authorities that have recently seized power. These entities may not be able to deal with ‘decapitation’, i.e. the loss of key leader figures.

In addition to being useful and effective under the above circumstances, targeted killing may paradoxically be justified for humanitarian reasons as it allows the state to achieve security goals without starting a full-scale war leading to innumerable civilian and military casualties. Already Renaissance authors noted that although the elimination of enemy individuals may look very much like sheer assassination and thus as blameworthy, it had a humanitarian component. As Thomas More put it in Utopia:

‘[The Utopians] think it likewise an act of mercy and love to mankind to prevent the great slaughter of those that must otherwise be killed in the progress of the war, both on their own side and on that of their enemies, by the death of a few that are most guilty; and that in so doing they are kind even to their enemies, and pity them no less than their own people, as knowing that the greater part of them do not engage in the war of their own accord, but are driven into it by the passions of their prince.’

The human rights perspective

Yet despite utilitarian and humanitarian arguments the practice of targeted killing still raises a number of legal and policy issues. At least in times of (formal) peace, the elimination of individuals without due process seems at odds with international human rights, in particular the individual’s right to life, and may not always comply with strict law enforcement standards typically required by liberal democracies. The elimination of foreign public figures, in particular, would be tantamount to political assassination, which is illegal under domestic laws and international treaties. It could qualify as an act of aggression against a foreign state, unless carried out in self-defence. Beyond the killing of public figures, even the elimination of terrorists, which might raise fewer legal and ethical issues, might turn out to be problematic in the long term if the targeting state deploys security arguments and emergency measures in ways that undermine human rights and constitutional guarantees.

Ticking bombs?

But surely, some might respond, there must be some justification at least for neutralizing terrorists who are preparing an attack, the classical ticking bomb scenario. This would clearly differ from the elimination of foreign leaders. One cannot deprive the state of its right to protect its citizens from terrorists simply because of the risk that some states will manipulate counterterrorism as an ideological tool. In a ticking bomb scenario, targeted killing would be a lesser evil compared with the consequences of a terrorist attack.

Yet the ticking bomb scenarios in which targeted killing seems most legitimate occur fairly rarely in the real world. Most targeted killings are meant to eliminate individuals who may not constitute an immediate threat. As a result, they should be apprehended whenever possible rather than killed, as most liberal legal systems require. If states decide to allow so-called shoot-to-kill policies to address security threats, strict standards of proportionality and necessity should be applied.

Breaching the law to protect the law?

Some have still argued that fully respecting ordinary criminal laws and human rights standards may in some exceptional cases prevent the state from properly addressing security threats, and terrorists should be eliminated as soon as the occasion arises. This might contravene liberal democracy standards, but it may sometimes be necessary to breach the law, or lower legal standards, in order to protect the law itself. The argument goes that when the legal system is threatened by people whose very aim is to destroy the law, legal protections should not be granted to them.

Is this a ‘war’? The law of armed conflict

In addition to utilitarian arguments, there would be a legal avenue for justifying targeted killing occurring in wartime. If terrorist attacks are recurrent and part of a continuous threat, the conflict between the state and opposition forces that the state regards as terrorists may legally be considered as a situation of outright armed conflict. The law of armed conflict would then apply, and this law offers more leeway to the state than human rights law or domestic criminal law. Under the law of armed conflict, all those taking active part in the hostilities – hence not only those constituting immediate threats – represent military targets and may lawfully be killed. There is no strict rule of armed conflict requiring the targeting entity to apprehend rather than kill the targeted person as long as the person is engaged in the hostilities, for instance by virtue of belonging to an armed group. Thus, the targeted killing of enemies during armed conflict does not raise many issues, and indeed states have often eliminated enemy troops and military officers through sharpshooting in wartime. Under this view, the central distinction would be the one between the state of war, in which targeted killing would typically be allowed, and a state of peace, in which human rights would play a major role and would place a heavier burden of proof on the targeting state to show that the targeting is lawful.

Operations abroad

Some further argue that a situation of armed conflict may also exist between the targeting state and terrorist entities based abroad. Under this view the targeting state, as a victim of terrorist attacks, would have a right to defend itself against those entities, including by means of extraterritorial operations. It has been argued that if a country is unwilling or unable to stop terrorists who threaten another state, the latter state has a right to take action to neutralize the terrorist threat on that country’s soil. This would be supported by Art. 51 UN Charter, which endows member states with an ‘inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs’ against them.

A slippery slope?

But could the justification of targeted killing turn into a slippery slope nevertheless? Even when targeting states do not intend to undermine the global human rights regime, merely resorting to and justifying targeted killing in an expansive way could weaken constitutional rights for ordinary citizens and introduce worrying precedents in international relations. The fact that targeted killing has sometimes been used by some states to neutralize internal dissidents shows that there is a fine line between legitimate counterterrorism and the more controversial elimination of internal opposition. Who will decide which kind of enemy qualifies as a legitimate target or rather the victim of domestic repression?

As the world order seems to be in transition it is important to keep in mind that targeted killing is part and parcel of broader practices of and discourses on the use of force in global politics. In previous centuries, targeted killing has been seen as a useful and even humanitarian tool, as More suggested, but it has also been used by some states to secure international influence and force regime change abroad. What is at stake in targeted killing policies and practices is not only the legality of specific acts but also the broader standards applicable to the use of force as a way of addressing domestic and international threats.

Walter Rech’s Collegium projectTargeted Killing and International Law, 1600–1800” investigates the history of state-sponsored assassinations and targeted killing in early-modern times, in particular in the period 1600–1800, when lawyers and government officials developed a set of core arguments on the matter. The project addresses the legal, political and ethical issues at stake in targeted killing and why it is important to rethink this practice today.





Mapping Care: Insights from the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies Retreat

By HCAS Fellows Andy Graan, Charlie Kurth, Lilian O’Brien, Wasiq Silan and Nina Öhman

In the tranquil summer retreat of 2023, the fellows of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies (HCAS) embarked on a journey to Haikko, a picturesque manor near the charming artisan old town of Porvoo. The purpose of the retreat was to foster interdisciplinary dialogue and conclude the productive academic year. While indulging in the seashore where one of the most renowned Finnish-Swedish painters, Albert Edelfelt, made his paintings, we delved into the intriguing topic of ‘care’ and explored its multifaceted dimensions. This blog post sheds light on our Mapping Care workshop, which brought together perspectives on care, ranging from indigenous studies and feminist theory to musicology, philosophy and more.

HCAS Fellows in front of the Haikko Manor in May 2023

The concept of care has been extensively analyzed and interpreted across various academic disciplines. From indigenous studies and feminist theory to political philosophy and queer theory, ideas about care have formed into an intricate composite of different meanings and applications. Recognizing the significance of care as a concept, our workshop aimed to create a safe space where we could share thoughts, exchange ideas, and collectively unravel the complex nature of care.

To kickstart the dialogue, two influential readings were circulated among us. The first was an essay by Sara Ahmed titled “Selfcare as Warfare,” which delved into the transformative power of self-care, drawing inspiration from the influential writer and activist Audre Lorde. Ahmed’s exploration of care as an act of resistance provided a thought-provoking foundation for the discussions that followed. The second reading, a chapter from Robin Wall Kimmerer‘s acclaimed book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, was titled “Learning the Grammar of Animacy.” In this chapter, Kimmerer elucidates the indigenous perspective on care by emphasizing the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world. By understanding the animate nature of all beings, Kimmerer advocates for a more respectful and reciprocal relationship with our environment. With the help of these two articles, we started a discussion about what ‘care’ may mean.

Weaving the meaning of care

Our workshop became a collaborative journey of introspection and exchange. We started the discussion by mapping out what ‘care’ means to us in our current studies, and what we envision ‘care’ would be in five years. We wrote down what comes to mind, inscribing one or two keywords on post-it notes. Our goal was to create a visual storyboard showing how care takes form in our current and future projects. Here is a description of the storyboard of our creation.


Wasiq Silan:

I approach ‘care’ in relation to wellbeing and health in the Indigenous context. I started out to engage with notion of ‘care’ through my fieldwork at the day club, a social welfare project that takes place in many Indigenous communities in Taiwan to support older adults to age in place. Being trained in political science, my research design was to examine how Taiwan’s long-term care policies for the elderly impact older adults in the Indigenous communities.

However, I quickly realized being at the day club was like a ceremony that transformed my research, my positionality and the framing through which I see care. Namely, I am more interested in how Elders experience care, and more broadly what health and well-being mean in the Indigenous Tayal context. In practice, I followed my grandmother into the day club (community care center), using ethnography as well as Indigenous methodologies to make sense of what care means to the Bbnkis (Tayal Elders). I found out that contrary to the policies, where care is treated as a tool to delay the (often inevitable) functional decay, care for Bbnkis is relational. A way of life. Malahang (care, caring or governing in Tayal) entails strengthening relationships between people, humans and animals, and most importantly, with land.

In a similar vein, care workers in the Indigenous communities were under moral stress when they want to provide meaningful care to the Bbnkis. The stress points at a collective ethical labor that Indigenous care workers are subjected to when they decided to privilege Elders’ needs rather than policy guidelines. Care thus becomes a fundamental site of struggle in the wider Taiwanese policy environment where decolonization was only beginning.

What does it look like in 5 years? I envision further developing the framework of care in the context of Tayal knowledge. Specifically, I aim to collaborate with community researchers through Indigenous methodologies to explore caring about relations within millets growing.

Andy Graan:

My current research focuses on projects and the model of agency that is presupposed by the project form.  Projects are based on the historically specific assumption that society and nature are objects that can be transformed and they position human actors as the agents who both envision and execute transformation.  This model of agency underwrote the myriad modernist projects that resulted in rapacious European colonialism, the enclosure of the commons, and constitutional government, just to name a few. Moreover, this model of agency perpetuates technofuturism as a hegemonic form of problem solving in the world today.

My interest in “care,” then, stems from my desire to denaturalize and provincialize the project form as a model of action.  Projects are premised on human subjects acting on natural and social objects.  Care, however, as articulated by thinkers working in the fields of feminist philosophy, Black feminist theory, and cultural anthropology, describes a different kind of social relation and a different model of action, one based on reciprocity, mutuality, kinning, respect, and solidarity.  Care is focused on the here and now, rather than on speculative futures. Care can be a praxis of refusal and survival, of denying dehumanization and oppression, of continuing to live after apocalypses.

Indeed, groups facing marginalization and abjection—women in patriarchal societies, the enslaved, the indigenous, the poor, those subjected to apartheid and occupation, refugees, and immigrants—have born the greatest burdens of care but have been its most profound elaborators and practitioners.  Everyday care practices too often go unrecognized while commodified care practices are hoarded by some and denied to others.  As I see it, then, the literature on care provides us with an important provocation. In elevating practices of reciprocity, refusal and survival, it punctures recalcitrant myths of progress (for whom?) and centers the fiercely mundane labor of living together.

Lilian O’Brien:

In my current research I am very interested in the nature of commitment – committing to plans and principles is central to our ability to function as social agents who coordinate and co-operate with others. Committing is also something that can give meaning and value to our lives, when, for example, we commit to caring for and supporting others in close relationships.

I am interested in the relationship between committing and caring. They seem to be interdependent, at least sometimes, and I would like to better understand this relationship of interdependence, how they are different from, or similar to, one another, how they may reinforce one another, but also how they may be in tension with one another. Is committing to promoting the well-being of another necessary for caring for them? How does and should caring for another be constrained or informed by prior commitments to plans or principles that are unconnected to caring for the other? The discussion at our care workshop has helped me to appreciate the complexity of the concept of care.

The other area in which I have thought about caring is in the context of feminist philosophy, and specifically, in feminist ethics. Feminist philosophers have argued that ethical theorizing, which has in the past been dominated by male philosophers, has neglected relationships of caring that are found in everyday settings, particularly in domestic settings where, for example, parents care for children, where children are taught to care for one another and for nonhuman animals, their environments, and so on.

Some feminists have thought that ethics should have care at its core – ethics should be much less focused on the rights of freely contracting individuals and should instead focus on the relationships of responsibility that we have to one another in social settings. Whether or not that revisionary view of ethics offers a clear and plausible alternative remains to be seen. But even if this radical revision does not work, it would be an impoverished ethics that did not take seriously the ethical issues that arise because we are the kinds of creatures who are embedded in caring relationships.

Nina Öhman:  

I have not yet used “care” as a concept in my current research, but I have become inspired by its potential to elucidate – or should I say amplify – the audible bonds people build with each other. As a musicologist, my research engages with sound and recently I have been thinking about the many ways in which the idea of care guides musical lives of individuals and communities. And how I might understand and write about caring in its myriad sonorities. On the one hand, a well-known approach is music therapy as health care, but on the other hand, caring / uncaring can be seen more broadly as the power of music to soothe, or trouble, our lived experiences. Furthermore, music in communal life can express values and enforce relationships, conveying caring for one another. Yet, music can also be used destructively, for example to disturb peace, for harmful or purposeful noise, demonstrating carelessness or uncaring.

Additionally, I have thought about what the idea of care might mean for us as researchers in our work. Instead of assuming the position of a so-called objective observer, I ponder how might we engage in our work as thinking and feeling individuals enacting care. I still have a lot to learn and understand about this topic, but surely care is an integral part of the dialogue we have with our interlocutors.

Charlie Kurth:

In my research and teaching, I’ve approached care from a variety of perspectives: within biomedical ethics, as a way to understand the complexity of the doctor-patient relationship; within normative ethics, as a feminist-inspired alternative to ethical theory; and in my work on moral psychology, as a label for a range of related, morally significant emotions—compassion, empathy, concern, and the like. The workshop gave me the opportunity to think not just about these facets of my work, but also gain further insights from the other participants. On this front, the discussion helped me see that talk about ‘care’ is much more conceptually rich and complex than I had appreciated.


With our reflections on what role ‘care’ plays in research, we can begin to recognize how our work is deeply entangled with care and (un)caring across different disciplines. Care encompasses the future, but even more so it is about here and now; care is an embodied experience, but it also transcends; care seems to evoke personal emotions, but it also triggers relational commitments that at times are even inseparable from the communities one cares about. Care is both mundane and sacred. Care has aspired to be turned into practice that empowers and transforms. Meanwhile, care continues to be practiced every day, largely unnoticed, likely devalued and may hardly be reciprocated.

To summarize, Ludwig Wittgenstein’s language game (see endnote below) may be helpful: there will be no one thing common to all forms of care, and no successful characterization of it in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, but that there will only be “family resemblances” among a variety of things that deserve the title “care”.

The HCAS retreat of 2023 served as a platform for us to collectively explore the multifaceted nature of care. The workshop—and the retreat as a whole—fostered a safe space for intellectual growth, encouraging us to challenge preconceived notions and develop a deeper understanding of amorphous concepts, such as care. By bringing together various disciplines, the Collegium’s retreat demonstrated the power of interdisciplinary dialogue in enriching the depth of our thinking.


Endnote: Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations, sections 65-67:

  1. You talk about all sorts of language- games, but have nowhere said what the essence of a language-game, and hence of language, is: what is common to all these activities, and what makes them into language or parts of language. So you let yourself off the very part of the investigation that once gave you yourself most headache, the part about the general form of propositions and of language.”And this is true.—Instead of producing something common to all that we call language, I am saying that these phenomena have no one thing in common which makes us use the same word for all,— but that they are related to one another in many different ways. And it is because of this relationship, or these relationships, that we call them all “language”. I will try to explain this.
  2. Consider for example the proceedings that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all?—Don’t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called ‘games’ “—but look and see whether there is anything common to all.—For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!—Look for example at board-games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball- games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost.—Are they all ‘amusing’? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.
  3. I can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than “family resemblances”; for the various resemblances between members of a family: build, features, colour of eyes, gait, temperament, etc. etc. overlap and criss-cross in the same way.— And I shall say: ‘games’ form a family.