Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Assassination Definition:

The targeted, covert killing of an individual without legal process and usually for reasons of, though not necessarily limited to, political or military expediency.

In her excellent and thorough article, Patricia Zeller defines assassination as follows:

"[A]ssassination under customary international law is understood to mean the selected killing of an individual enemy by treacherous means...."

An unclassified Central Intelligence Agency document defines assassination as follows:

"... the planned killing of a person who is not under the legal jurisdiction of the killer, who is not physically in the hands of the killer, who has been selected by a resistance organization for death, and whose
death provides positive advantages to that organization."

assassination toolWriting in the Police Journal, Power wrote:

"Assassination by definition implies that the victim is taken by surprise and treacherously killed without legal process. It usually means political homicide although an individual may be assassinated by a professional killer...."

In his 1965 article, Joseph Kelly writes of assassination in time of war:

"[T]he essence of the war crime of assassination ... is, in most cases, the selected killing of an enemy by a person not in uniform."

Early international law writers such as Hugo Grotius and Emerich de Vattel both approved of assassination as a tactic of war, and both deferring to the word treacherous as a distinctive feature of assassination. Grotius used the example of poison as a treacherous form of assassination.

This from the 1863 U.S. Army Field Code (aka, the Lieber Code):

"The law of war does not allow proclaiming either an individual belonging to the hostile army, or a citizen, or a subject of a hostile government, an outlaw, who may be slain without trial by any captor.... Civilized nations look with horror upon offers or rewards for the assassination of enemies as relapses into barbarism."

A sample of world figures lost to assassination:

  • Jean-Paul Marat (France, 1793)
  • Abraham Lincoln (USA, 1865)
  • Thomas D'Arcy McGee (Canada, 1868)
  • Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich (Russia, 1905)
  • Itoh Hirobumi (Japan, 1909)
  • Francisco Madero (Mexico, 1913)
  • Archduke Franzis Ferdinand (Austria, 1914)
  • Grigori Rasputin (Russia, 1916)
  • Benito Mussolini (Italy, 1945)
  • Sergey Kirov (Russia, 1934)
  • Alexander I (Yugoslavia, 1934)
  • Huey Long (USA, 1935)
  • Leon Trotsky (Russia, 1940)
  • Reinhard Heydrich (Germany, 1942)
  • Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (India, 1948)
  • Abdullah I bin al-Hussein (Jordan, 1951)
  • John F. Kennedy (USA, 1963)
  • Martin Luther King (USA, 1968)
  • Pierre Laporte (Canada, 1970)
  • Anwar Sadat (Egypt, 1981)
  • Olof Palme (Sweden, 1986)
  • Yitzhak Rabin (Israel, 1995)
  • Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan, 2007)
  • Muammar Gaddafi (Libya, 2011)


  • Brandenburg, Bert, The Legality of Assassination as an Aspect of Foreign Policy, 27 VJIL 655 (1986-1987)
  • A Study of Assassination (Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), circa 1953). Unsigned typewritten document declassified under the American Freedom of Information Act on May 15, 1997. Excerpted in the New York Times, May 31, 1997
  • Executive Order 12,333 (1982), available at 50 U.S.C. 401:44-51
  • Grotius, Hugo, De Jure Belli, as translated in the Classics of International Law, Volume 3(2), page 653-656
  • Kelly, Joseph, Assassination in War Time, 30 Mil. L. Rev. 101 (1965)
  • Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field, United States Army, General Order No. 100 (1863; also known as the Lieber Code, used during the American Civil War)
  • Letelier v. Republic of Chile, 488 F. Supp. 665 (United States District Court. 1980)
  • Power, D. J., "Assassination", 61 Police J. 175 (1988)
  • Vattel, Emerich de, Law of Nations, 1758, (translated by Joseph Chitty, 1833), page 358-364
  • Zengel, Patricia, Assassination and the Law of Armed Conflict, 43 Mercer L. Rev. 615 (1991-1992)

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