Killing Qasem Soleimani: International Lawyers Divided and Conquered

21 Pages Posted: 21 Dec 2020

See all articles by Luca Ferro

Luca Ferro

Ghent University-Universiteit Gent, Faculty of Law

Date Written: October 6, 2020


The article is structured in two main parts. First, it sets out the facts surrounding the death of Soleimani as they have been widely reported by media outlets and relied upon by international legal experts. It then delves into the analysis by no less than fifteen of them who (co-)authored eleven legal briefs of varying depth. All such briefs tackle, to a more or lesser extent, the same overarching question: Was the killing of Soleimani by U.S. drone strikes 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, as noted above, 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. That preliminary examination will be tackled in the article’s second part. The root of the problem indeed appears to lie in a different methodological approach to the same issue, which includes relying on different sources and/or interpreting the same sources differently. Add to that the law’s supposed indeterminacy, the absence of an authoritative arbiter, and contemporary academic idiosyncrasies, and it becomes clear(er) why each interpretation of international law is seemingly allowed to stand.

The article ends with some final reflections. Generally, it hopes to spark a much-needed debate by identifying a worrying trend in international law and taking a swing at offering preliminary explanations, rather than present a definitive solution. After all, if the “invisible college of international lawyers” cannot 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.

Keywords: jus ad bellum, jus in bello, international human rights law, international legal theory and methodology

Suggested Citation

Ferro, Luca, Killing Qasem Soleimani: International Lawyers Divided and Conquered (October 6, 2020). Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Luca Ferro (Contact Author)

Ghent University-Universiteit Gent, Faculty of Law ( email )

Universiteitstraat 4
+32(0)92649756 (Phone)
+32(0)92646989 (Fax)


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