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With the Stroke of a Pen: Legal Standards for Adding Names to Government Kill Lists

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image of International Human Rights Law Review

United States (US) government officials disclosed, in 2010, that Anwar Al-Aulaki, a dual US-Yemeni citizen alleged to be a leader of the terrorist group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, had been added to a list of individuals that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) were authorised to target for death. It is clear that the right to life is affected by targeted killing actions, as the objective of the practice is to kill the targeted individual. For such a practice to be lawful, it has to be considered non-arbitrary according to international standards. The two main instruments of universal scope that provide a legal protection for this right are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The use of lethal force by a State would be legally justified by: (1) the carrying out of a lawfully imposed death penalty; (2) during an armed conflict, under international humanitarian law; and (3) if the force used was necessary, proportional and not the first option. This article examines the question of whether adding names to kill list remains legal under international human rights and humanitarian law, and if so, under what circumstances?

Affiliations: 1: Human rights lawyer, llm (ichr, nui Galway); 2: PhD (usp), Professor of International Law, State University of Campinas, Brazil, Universidade Nove de Julho and Pontifícia Universidade Católica de Campinas, Brazil,


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