Are Signature Strikes Legal? Targeted Killings and International Law

Are Signature Strikes Legal? Targeted Killings and International Law

Please join us for a talk with Kevin Heller, Associate Professor of International Criminal Law at Melbourne Law School. This event is co-sponsored with the UCLA School of Law Sanela Diana Jenkins Human Rights Project.

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Duration: 57:56



Although the vast majority of drone attacks conducted by the United States have been signature strikes, scholars have paid almost no attention to their legality under international law. This talk attempts to fill that lacuna. It begins by explaining why a signature strike must be justified under either international humanitarian law (IHL) or international human rights law (IHRL) even if the strike was a legitimate act of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. It then explores the legality of signature strikes under IHL, concluding that although some signature strikes clearly comply with the principle of distinction, others either violate that principle as a matter of law or require evidence concerning the target that the United States is unlikely to possess prior to the attack. Finally, the talk provides a similar analysis for IHRL, concluding that most of the signature strikes permitted by IHL would violate IHRL’s insistence that individuals cannot be arbitrarily deprived of their right to life. To read the paper that this talk is based on, please click here.


Kevin Jon Heller is currently Associate Professor & Reader at Melbourne Law School, where he teaches international criminal law and criminal law. He is also Project Director for International Criminal Law at the Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law, a joint project of Melbourne Law School and the Australian Defence Force. He holds a PhD in law from Leiden University, a JD with distinction from Stanford Law School, an MA with honours in literature from Duke University, and an MA and BA, both with honours, in sociology from the New School for Social Research.

Kevin’s book The Nuremberg Military Tribunals and the Origins of International Criminal Law was published by Oxford University Press in June 2011, and Stanford University Press published his edited book (with Markus Dubber) The Handbook of Comparative Criminal Law in February 2011. He is a permanent member of the international-law blog Opinio Juris.

On the practical side, Kevin has been involved in the International Criminal Court’s negotiations over the crime of aggression and served from December 2008 until February 2011 as one of Radovan Karadzic's formally-appointed legal associates at the ICTY.  His blog post on 18 USC 1119, the foreign-murder statute, is credited with influencing the development of the Obama administration's targeted-killing policy concerning American citizens.

For more information on The UCLA School of Law Sanela Diana Jenkins Human Rights Project, please click here.

For directions and parking instructions for the UCLA Law School, please click here.

Sponsor(s): Burkle Center for International RelationsUCLA Law