There are some actions in war that are designated as war crimes, such as targeting civilians, torture, and systematic sexual violence or enslavement. Some of these actions hinge on the definition of "civilian." In an effort to better understand which actions are allowed under international law and which are not, I tried to find an answer to the titular question, but unless the head of government or head of state can be defined as a civilian, I haven't been able to find any evidence that assassination of a head of government or head of state is explicitly disallowed under an international convention.

Does anyone know (or perhaps is anyone much better at Googling than I am):

Is it illegal for a nation at war to assassinate another's head of government/state?

  • 1
    Your title is specific to Russia vs Ukraine, while the bolded question is a general question about war crimes. Which are you primarily interested in?
    – divibisan
    Mar 3, 2022 at 19:08
  • 8
    In general it's illegal to invade your neighboring country and kill anyone there. But that's not what you asked, right? Mar 3, 2022 at 19:34
  • 1
    Legally can't be determined in the abstract. It depends upon the procedural posture and context in which the question arises. What one court might say is illegal, another court may say is legal.
    – ohwilleke
    Mar 3, 2022 at 21:41
  • 1
    Another point that is maybe relevant: in some cases (I know for example the case of the Belgian king), leaders hold military ranks. Does this affect the answer?
    – Wouter
    Mar 4, 2022 at 4:26

2 Answers 2

  • An unprovoked war of aggression is against international law. Russia claims to have justification, most of the world disagrees.
  • Apparently, Russia still denies that there is a war between Russia and Ukraine. But that does not stop the law of war from being applicable to this conflict, a declaration of war is not necessary to make this an international armed conflict.
  • President Zelensky is the head of government and commander of one of the parties of the war. An attack on the top of the Ukrainian command-and-control system appears to meet the test of distinction. It may or may not meet the test of proportionality.
    Notably, an attack that can be expected to kill civilians is legal if it also has a legitimate military objective, and if this risk to civilians is in proportion to the military objective. There is no requirement to totally avoid collateral damage.
  • It would also meet the test of distinction for Ukraine to kill Putin. Just sayin' . . . Mar 7, 2022 at 13:25
  • @WilliamJockusch, it is remarkable how few missiles Ukraine has sent into Russia, or Belarus.
    – o.m.
    Mar 7, 2022 at 16:43

It is definitely illegal to land in a friendly country and go safari hunting the local president just for fun. Presidents are humans, too.

It may be different during the war (the president is also the military commander so combatant, etc) but for that Russia must at least recognize there is the war ongoing. If they officially do not, they should formally jail they own troops for attempted murder, while obviously unlikely to do so. Maybe a process of sentencing the foreign president to death may be used as a work around.

This obviously leaves the question open what the rest of the world would think.

  • If you want to work in the framework of Russian communication, i.e. no war, Russia should prosecute a few hundreds of thousands of it's combatants for murdering a few hundreds of thousands people (civilian and combatant) in Ukraine. Which just shows how ridiculous the claim is, and that we should not even bother to consider it. There is a war, and russia acts correspondingly, regardless of what comes out of their mouth.
    – Neinstein
    Dec 7, 2023 at 10:29

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