Jan. 30, 2020 - A drone strike by the U.S. that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani raises legal, political and ethical questions that intersect with multiple facets of law, faculty members said in a recent discussion for students at the University of Houston Law Center. Associate Professors Emily Berman and Zachary D. Kaufman were panelists, and Associate Professor D. Theodore Rave, the George A. Butler Research Professor, served as the moderator.
Soleimani was the commander of the Quds Force in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He was killed on Jan. 3 at the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.
"The Quds Force is an elite military intelligence unit within Iran's Revolutionary Guard that focuses on extraterritorial operations and sponsors proxy forces like Hezbollah and militias in Iraq, Syria and several other countries," Rave said in his introductory remarks.
"The United States had for a long time designated Soleimani as a terrorist and recently designated the Quds Force as a terrorist organization. Soleimani was considered by many to be the second-most powerful figure in Iran after Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.”
Kaufman, who teaches Criminal Law, International Law, and International Justice and Atrocities, said it has become more difficult to classify the action taken against Soleimani.
"Some commentators have referred to the attack as an assassination, while others have characterized it as a targeted killing or an extrajudicial execution," Kaufman said. "Before 9/11, there was much more significance to the legal, political, and moral distinctions among those terms.
"Since 9/11, both Democrats and Republicans have often argued that the U.S. is in a perpetual state of war against terrorists, and that many of these individuals pose an imminent threat. That claim is then used to justify, under both domestic and international law, intentional killing abroad. Differences among assassination, targeted killing, and extrajudicial execution are now murkier."
Berman, who teaches Constitutional Law, Foreign Relations Law, and National Security Law, pointed to the differences between Soleimani's death compared to that of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 or Abu Bark al-Baghdadi in 2019.
"To me what makes it different from most of the targeted killing we've seen since 9/11 is this was a high-ranking government official of another state,” Berman said. “For the most part, the targeted killings have been made against what are known as non-state actors - members of organizations that are not themselves countries.
“When we talk about whether the president's use of lethal force requires Congress' authorization, one of the factors that goes into that assessment is the risk of escalation. That risk is significantly higher when we target an official of a nation whose interests are adversarial to those of the U.S. So there are potential legal implications of the distinction between Soleimani and most individual targets the U.S. has singled out in recent years."