Luca Ferro

Killing Qasem Soleimani: International Lawyers Divided and Conquered

Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, volume 53(1)

This article first sets out the facts surrounding the killing of Iranian Major-General Qasem Soleimani by U.S. drone strikes on 3 January 2020 as reported by media outlets and widely relied upon by international legal experts. It then delves into the analysis by no less than 15 of them who co-authored 11 legal briefs of varying depth, all tackling (to some extent) the same question: Was Soleimani’s killing in conformity with the relevant requirements of international law, consisting of the jus ad bellum (“JAB”), jus in bello (“JIB”) and international human rights law (“IHRL”)? However, there was little consensus among the experts – if any.

The article hopes to better understand why international lawyers disagree so spectacularly by comparing and contrasting the variety of views in the Soleimani-case and stripping down the supporting argumentation to uncover the underlying (theoretical and methodological) approach. This is then followed by some final reflections. More generally, it hopes to spark a much-needed debate by identifying a worrying trend in international legal scholarship that seemingly allows each controversial interpretation to stand, and taking a swing at offering preliminary explanations rather than present a definitive solution to a perennial concern in international law.

After all, if the “invisible college of international lawyers” cannot even decide on the disputed legality of a State unapologetically taking out the military brass of its arch-enemy on the territory of a neutral country, it is difficult to see what remains of the prohibition on the use of force – the cornerstone of the Charter of the United Nations and international law more broadly.