Is it legal to target political leaders of other nations in times of war? This issue is given virtually no attention in existing legal scholarship. International Humanitarian Law outlines who can be legally killed in wartime, but the legality of targeting political leaders is not addressed. Based on existing legal principles that determine when an individual can be targeted in wartime, I explore how these concepts can inform if and when it is legal to target political leaders.
I use case studies from the United States, Britain, Israel, Australia, and Germany to illuminate the existing legal realities in which political leaders can and cannot be targeted. I find that political leaders can be legally targeted, depending on their combatant status, which is largely determined by their country’s domestic designation of military powers.
Leaders who are formally allotted military powers in their domestic constitutions and basic laws can be considered combatants and therefore can be targeted. Leaders who are not formally allotted military powers but in practice control the military must be considered civilians. These individuals can be legally targeted when taking direct part in hostilities, but legal debate has recently emerged arguing that civilians who fulfill a continuous combat function can be legally targeted at all times.