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Daily-current-affairs / 20 Apr 2024

Understanding Targeted Killings in International Law : Daily News Analysis



Targeted killings of suspected terrorists across international borders raise complex legal and ethical questions. This discussion looks into the justifications and implications of such actions, drawing insights from international law, political context, and bilateral relations.

Legal Framework and Justifications for Targeted Killings

Targeted killings, as a strategy to eliminate terrorists outside a nation's borders, lack a clear legal definition in international law. However, certain criteria are typically considered before such actions are undertaken. Three key factors are often weighed: designation of the individual as a terrorist under UN Security Council lists, the difficulty of extradition or legal proceedings, and ongoing engagement in terrorist activities. These conditions, if met, may justify lethal force as a pre-emptive measure, aimed at minimizing collateral damage.

It underscores the legal basis of targeted killings under the principle of self-defense outlined in Article 51 of the UN Charter. Self-defense is considered paramount, particularly when a state faces continuous threats from terrorist activities and perceives the host state as unable or unwilling to address these threats effectively.

International humanitarian law (IHL), also known as the laws of war, applies during armed conflicts, regulating conduct and targeting of combatants. International human rights law (IHRL) is relevant at all times, although it may be superseded by IHL during armed conflict.

Under IHL, attacks are permitted only against military objectives, such as enemy combatants or weaponry. Civilians are protected from attack unless they directly participate in hostilities. To be lawful, attacks must discriminate between combatants and civilians, with expected civilian casualties not disproportionate to the military gain.

Outside armed conflict, lethal force is lawful only when strictly necessary to prevent imminent harm to life and when arrest is not reasonably possible. IHRL emphasizes the right to life and restricts the use of lethal force to imminent threats. Post-attack investigations are essential to uphold accountability and transparency.

Applying the Criteria: Perspectives on India's Actions

The conversation scrutinizes recent statements by Indian officials regarding targeted killings in Pakistan. The Defence Minister's assertion of India's willingness to enter Pakistani territory to eliminate terrorists sparks a debate on the legitimacy of such actions. One viewpoint supports this stance, suggesting that continuous conflict and cross-border attacks justify India's response under international law.

However, another perspective provides a nuanced view, questioning whether these actions meet the prescribed criteria. The necessity of credible intelligence assessments to determine immediate threats posed by targeted individuals is emphasized. This scrutiny underscores the complexities of justifying targeted killings within international legal frameworks.

Double Standards and International Reactions

It extends to the perception of double standards in international responses to targeted killings. Comparisons are drawn between the US-led operation against Osama bin Laden and Israel's Mossad operations, which often escape significant international scrutiny. It acknowledges these disparities, attributing them to political alliances and global power dynamics.

US Targeted Killings

The United States has conducted numerous targeted killings, primarily using drones, in countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Estimates of casualties vary, with reports suggesting significant numbers of alleged militants and civilians killed. US legal rationale emphasizes self-defense against terrorist threats, citing an ongoing armed conflict with groups like al Qaeda.

The role of self-interest and domestic politics in shaping international reactions is referenced. The impact of domestic constituencies on foreign policy discourse underscores the multifaceted nature of diplomatic relations amid evolving global dynamics.

Implications for India's Foreign Relations

The potential repercussions of targeted killings on India's bilateral ties are explored. Responses to allegations from countries like Canada and the US are analyzed, stressing the importance of strategic messaging and effective communication to mitigate diplomatic fallout.

The need for a proactive public relations strategy to uphold India's international image amidst criticism is emphasized. Nuanced diplomatic approaches are advocated for, recognizing the diversity of voices within democracies and the necessity of addressing criticisms through effective action and communication.


In conclusion, the dialogue underscores the complexities of targeted killings in navigating international law and diplomatic relations. The imperative for transparent and principled approaches in addressing security threats while upholding legal and ethical standards is highlighted.

The significance of strategic communication and public diplomacy in shaping international perceptions is underscored. Nuanced diplomatic engagement is advocated for, recognizing the multifaceted nature of democratic discourse and the imperative of addressing criticisms constructively.

Ultimately, the discourse on targeted killings underscores the necessity of navigating legal, ethical, and political complexities to uphold international norms and preserve diplomatic relations in an evolving global landscape.

Probable Questions for UPSC Mains Exam-

1.      Discuss the legal frameworks governing targeted killings in international law, highlighting the key criteria that justify such actions. How do these frameworks balance the imperative of self-defense with the principles of humanitarian and human rights law? Provide examples to illustrate your points. (10 Marks, 150 Words)

2.      Evaluate the implications of targeted killings on India's foreign relations, focusing on recent statements regarding actions in Pakistan. How can effective strategic communication mitigate potential diplomatic challenges arising from such operations? ( 15 Marks, 250 Words)

Source- The Hindu