Ariel Center for
Policy Research



NATIV   ■   Volume Fifteen   ■   Number 6 (89)  ■  November 2002   ■  Ariel Center for Policy Research




Assassinating Saddam:
The View from International Law

Louis René Beres

Can there ever be any justification for assassination under international law? As the United States prepares for war against Iraq, it is clear that “regime change” is an integral part of the American plan.

Although such a use of force would seem to violate basic legal norms, exactly the opposite is true. For several thousand years, in fact, scholars have argued persuasively that tyrannicide is not only permissible, but indispensable. Today, when Saddam Hussein is preparing to acquire nuclear weapons, the argument for lawful assassination is more compelling than ever.

International law is not a suicide pact. The right of anticipatory self-defense, long-established as part of customary international law, was reaffirmed recently by the Bush Administration in its National Security Strategy of the United States of America (released September 20, 2002).

Here the President expanded upon the traditional notions, asserting correctly that weapons of mass destruction reduce the defending state’s obligation to wait until the danger posed is “imminent in point of time”. Of course the United States position on this matter of assassinating Saddam extends equally to any other state which might face Iraqi nuclear aggression. In the case of Israel, the right to strike first against Saddam likely exceeds that of the United States.

In the best of all possible worlds, assassination could never be regarded as a proper form of remediation. Yet, we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, and failure to remove Saddam Hussein by assassination would result in the killing and torturing of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. Recognizing this, international law affirms, in various authoritative forms and sources, that in certain circumstances, assassination may represent a substantially life-saving use of armed force in world politics.

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