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Narrative Kill or Capture: Unreliable Narration in International Law

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 October 2015


This article evaluates the benefits of a ‘turn to narration’ in international legal scholarship. It argues that significant attention should be paid to the narrators who employ international law as a vocabulary to further their professional projects. Theories of unreliable narration help map consensus within international law's interpretive community in a manner that is acutely sensitive to point of view and perspective. The article examines the existence and extent of unreliable narration through a case study: the practice of targeted killing by the Obama administration in the United States. The struggle for control of the narrative, by narrators with different professional roles and cognitive frames, is ultimately a struggle for interpretive power, with the resulting ability to ‘kill or capture’ divergent narrative visions. Unreliable narration offers a critical heuristic for assessing how narratives are generated, sustained, and called into question in international law, while fostering reflexive inquiry about international law as a professional discipline.

Copyright © Foundation of the Leiden Journal of International Law 2015 

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note 5

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note 5
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20 Ibid., at 284. See P. Ricoeur, Time and Narrative (1990).


21 Ibid., at 294. See also A. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981), at 248: ‘we enter upon a stage which we did not design and we find ourselves part of an action that was not of our own making’; C. Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (1992), at 208: narrative history is ‘the basic and essential genre for the characterization of human actions’.


22 Ibid., at 278.


23 Ibid., at 278.


24 Ibid., at 279.


25 Ibid., at 279.


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note 8

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note 9

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note 19

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note 39

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note 19

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note 65

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note 28

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76 Brooks, supra note 9, at 25.

note 9

77 Herman, supra note 10, at 282.

note 10

78 ‘Unreliable Narration’ in Herman, Jahn, and Ryan, supra note 5, at 623.

note 5

79 W. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961). See also W. Riggan, Picaros, Madmen, Naifs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First-Person Narrator (1981).

80 Ibid., at 158.


81 Ibid., at 155.


82 V. Nabokov, Lolita (1959).

83 Riggan, supra note 79, at 14.

note 79

84 Booth, supra note 79, at 307.

note 79

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note 88

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note 16

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note 88

103 Ibid.


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note 56

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note 116

118 Ibid., at 41.


119 Ibid., at 41–43.


120 I. Venzke, How Interpretation Makes International Law (2012), at 62–64.

121 Johnstone, supra note 116, at 44.

note 116

122 Marks, supra note 64, at 996.

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note 107

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130 A. Orford, Reading Humanitarian Intervention (2003), at 158–85.

131 National Security Strategy of the United States (2002). See Flint, C. and Falah, G.-W., ‘How the United States justified its war on terrorism: prime morality and the construction of a “Just War”’, (2004) 25 (8)Third World Q. 1379CrossRefGoogle Scholar; R. Krebs, Narrative and the Making of US National Security (2015); A. Hodges, The ‘War on Terror’ Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality (2011).

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138 Ibid., at 233.


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142 D. Kennedy, Of War and Law (2006), at 127.

143 UN Human Rights Council, supra note 141.

note 141

144 Ibid., at 1.


145 Ibid., at 87.


146 Ibid., at 93.


147 Al-Awlaqi v. Obama, 727 F. Supp.2d 1, 46–52 (DDC 2010). See generally Dehn, J. and Heller, K., ‘Targeted Killing: The Case of Anwar al-Awlaki’, (2011) 159 U.Pa.L.Rev. 175Google Scholar; Chesney, R., ‘Who May Be Killed? Anwar al-Awlaki as a Case Study in the International Legal Regulation of Lethal Force’, (2010) 13 YIHL 3Google Scholar.

148 Ibid., (Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief).


149 Ibid.


150 Ibid.


151 Ibid.


152 See Gray, C., ‘Targeted Killing: Recent US Attempts to Create a Legal Framework’, (2013) 66 CLP 75Google Scholar. For a discussion of speechmaking, see Ingber, R., ‘Interpretation Catalysts and Executive Branch Legal Decisionmaking’, (2013) 38 Yale J.Int'l L. 359Google Scholar.

153 H. H. Koh, ‘The Obama Administration and International Law’, Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law, 25 March 2010. Available at: (accessed 7 August 2015). See McKelvey, T., ‘Defending the Drones: Harold Koh and the Evolution of US Policy’, in Bergen, P. and Rothenberg, D. (eds.), Drone Wars: Transforming Conflict, Law and Policy (2015)Google Scholar, at 85.

154 E. Holder, Speech at Northwestern University School of Law, 5 March 2012. Available at: (accessed 7 August 2015).

155 Brennan, supra note 133.

note 133

156 Koh, supra note 153.

note 153

157 Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan (September 2012). Available at: (accessed 7 August 2015).

158 Ibid., at v.


159 Ibid., at ix.


160 New York Times and ACLU v. US Department of Justice 11 Civ 9336 (2 January 2013).

161 See Kaye, D., ‘International Law Issues in the Department of Justice White Paper on Targeted Killing’, (2013) 17 (8)ASIL Insights 1Google Scholar; D. Cole, ‘How We Made Killing Easy’, New York Review of Books (6 February 2013).

162 Obama, ‘Remarks by the President at the National Defense University’, 23 May 2013. Available at: (accessed 7 August 2015).

163 Ibid.


164 UN General Assembly, Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary executions, A/68/382, 13 September 2013.

165 Ibid., at 108.


166 UN General Assembly, Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, 18 September 2013, at 41.

167 UN Human Rights Committee, Concluding Observations on the Fourth Report of the United States of America, adopted by the Committee in its 110th session, 10–28 March 2014.

168 Ibid., at 9.


169 J. Jaffer, ‘Obama's Drone Memo is Finally Public’, The Guardian (24 June 2014).

170 J. Jaffer, ‘The Drone Memo Cometh’, Just Security (21 June 2014).

171 ‘A Thin Rationale for Drone Killings’, New York Times (23 June 2014).

172 Johnstone, supra note 116, at 93.

note 116

173 K. Anderson in J. Goldsmith, Power and Constraint: The Accountable Presidency after 9/11 (2012), at 200.

174 Kingsbury, Krisch, and Stewart, supra note 63.

note 63

175 For a discussion of ‘lawfare’, see Goldsmith, supra note 173, at 223–33.

note 173

176 See H. Bruff, Bad Advice: Bush's Lawyers in the War on Terror (2009), at 61–83.

177 Shroff, M., ‘The Worldly Task’, in Geiringer, C. and Knight, D. (eds.), Seeing the World Whole: Essays in Honour of Sir Kenneth Keith (2008), at 267Google Scholar.

178 M. Weller, Iraq and the Use of Force in International Law (2010), at 253.

179 Goldsmith, J., ‘The Irrelevance of Prerogative Power, and the Evils of Secret Legal Interpretation’, in Fatovic, C. and Kleinerman, B. (eds.), Extra-Legal Power and Legitimacy: Perspectives on Prerogative (2013), 214CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 230–31.

180 For analysis of the deficiencies of the speeches, see Gray, supra note 152, at 105.

note 152

181 Supra note 161. See Pozen, D., ‘The Leaky Leviathan: Why the Government Condemns and Condones Unlawful Disclosures of Information’, (2013) 127 Harv.L.Rev. 512Google Scholar.

note 161

182 G. Greenwald, ‘The NYT and Obama Officials Collaborate to Prosecute Awlaki After He's Executed’, The Guardian (11 March 2013). See generally R. Sagar, Secrets and Leaks (2013).

183 Jaffer, supra note 169.

note 169

184 Koh, H. H., ‘The State Department Legal Adviser's Office: Eight Decades in Peace and War’, (2012) 100 Geo.L.J. 1747Google Scholar, at 1754.

185 T. Cheng, When International Law Works: Realistic Idealism after 9/11 and the Global Recession (2012), at 49–53.

186 Bethlehem, D., ‘The Secret Life of International Law’, (2012) 1 (1)CJICL 23CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 29; Bethlehem, D., ‘Self-Defense Against an Imminent or Actual Armed Attack by Nonstate Actors’, (2013) 106 AJIL 770Google Scholar.

187 Marks, supra note 64, at 998.

note 64

188 Johns, supra note 72, at 7–8.

note 72

189 Gray, supra note 152, at 87.

note 152

190 Bianchi, A., ‘On Power and Illusion: The Concept of Transparency in International Law’, in Bianchi, A. and Peters, A. (eds.), Transparency in International Law (2013), 1CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 14–15.

191 See Julius Stone's discussion of precise criteria as a ‘trap for the innocent and a signpost for the guilty’: Conflict Through Consensus: UN Approaches to Aggression (1977).

192 Peters, A., ‘Towards Transparency as a Global Norm’ in Bianchi, A. and Peters, A. (eds.), Transparency in International Law (2013), 534CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 568–9.

193 Krasmann, S., ‘Targeted Killing and its Law: On A Mutually Constitutive Relationship’, (2012) 25 (3)LJIL 665CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

194 On the potential effects of the US drone strikes on the development of international law, see Aronsson, M., ‘Remote Law-Making? American Drone Strikes and the Development of Jus Ad Bellum’, (2014) 1 (2)Journal on the Use of Force and International Law 273Google Scholar.

195 S. Shane and J. O. Becker, ‘Secret Kill List Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will’, New York Times (29 May 2012). See also Sanders, R., ‘(Im)plausible Legality: The Institutionalization of Human Rights Abuses in the American “Global War on Terror”’, (2011) 15 (4)IJHR 605Google Scholar.

196 G. Chamayou, Drone Theory (2015), at 163.

197 Leander, A., ‘Technological Agency in the Co-Constitution of Legal Expertise and the US Drone Program’, (2013) 26 (4)LJIL 811CrossRefGoogle Scholar; D. Hollis, ‘The Fog of Technology and International Law’, Opinio Juris (15 May 2015).

198 A. Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1993), Ch. 23.

199 Brooks, supra note 9, at 28.

note 9

200 Riggan, supra note 79, at 10.

note 79

201 Kennedy, D., ‘Lawfare and Warfare’, in Crawford, J. and Koskenniemi, M. (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to International Law (2012)Google Scholar, at 158.

202 Venzke, I., ‘Legal Contestation about Enemy Combatants or the Exercise of Power in Legal Interpretation’, (2009) 5 Journal of International Law and International Relations 155Google Scholar.

203 Werner, W., ‘Book Review – Ian Johnstone The Power of Deliberation’, (2013) 10 IOLR 247Google Scholar, at 252.

204 See Dawes, J. and Gupta, S., ‘On Narrative and Human Rights’, (2014) 5 (1)Humanity 149CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

205 For a discussion of role-differentiated morality, see Windsor, M., ‘Government Legal Advisers Through the Ethics Looking Glass’, in Feldman, D. (ed.), Law in Politics, Politics in Law (2013)Google Scholar, at 117–37. See also Kassop, N., ‘Rivals for Influence on Counterterrorism Policy in the Obama Administration: White House Political Staff versus Executive Branch Legal Advisers’, (2013) 43 (2)Presidential Studies Quarterly 252CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

206 Simpson, G., ‘International Law in Diplomatic History’, in Crawford, J. and Koskenniemi, M. (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to International Law (2012), 25CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 25.

207 Chamayou, supra note 196, at 167.

note 196

208 Compare Koh, supra note 153, with Koh, ‘How to End the Forever War?’ (Oxford Union, 7 May 2013). In March 2015, a group of students at New York University wrote an open letter of no-confidence in Koh's academic appointment at that institution, on the basis of his ‘direct facilitation of the US government's extrajudicial imposition of death sentences’. A counter-petition circulated, lauding Koh's ‘unquestionable personal commitment to human rights’. For discussion, see ‘Drone Strikes and International Law: Fallout Reaches The Ivory Tower’, The Economist (22 April 2015); E. Massimino, ‘The Wrong Litmus Test for Activists’, The Washington Post (30 April 2015); P. Alston, ‘Harold Koh and the Battle of the Dueling Petitions’, Just Security (20 April 2015); R. Goodman, ‘Advancing Human Rights From Within: The Footsteps of Harold Koh’, Just Security (10 April 2015). See generally Edelson, C., ‘The Law in Service to Power: Academics and Executive Branch Lawyers’, (2013) 43 (3)Presidential Studies Quarterly 618CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

note 153

209 Bianchi, A., ‘The International Regulation of the Use of Force: The Politics of Interpretative Method’, in van den Herik, L. and Schrijver, N. (eds.), Counter-Terrorism Strategies in a Fragmented International Legal Order (2013)Google Scholar, at 283–316.

210 Luban, D., ‘Military Necessity and the Cultures of Military Law’, (2013) 26 (2)LJIL 315CrossRefGoogle Scholar, at 315: ‘For military lawyers, the starting point is military necessity, and the reigning assumption is that legal regulation of war must accommodate military necessity. For humanitarian lawyers, the starting point is human dignity and human rights. The result is two interpretive communities that systematically disagree not only over the meaning of particular law-of-war norms, but also over the sources and methods of law that could be used to resolve the disagreements.’

211 D. Kennedy, supra note 142, at 116.

note 142

212 M. Mazzetti, C. Savage, and S. Shane, ‘How a US Citizen Came to Be in America's Cross Hairs’, New York Times (9 March 2013).

213 Greenwald, supra note 182. See Hakimi, M., ‘The Role of Media as Participants in the International Legal Process’, (2006) 16 Duke J.Comp.& Int'l L. 1Google Scholar.

note 182

214 MacIntyre, supra note 21, at 253.

note 21

215 Solum, supra note 71.

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216 For a discussion of cognitive frames and norm entrepeneurs, see Finnemore, M. and Sikkink, K., ‘International Norm Dynamics and Political Change’, (1998) 52 (4)International Organization 887CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

217 On the concerning normalization of targeted killing as a state practice, see J. Waldron, ‘Death Squads and Death Lists: Targeted Killing and the Character of the State’ (presentation at Ethics in War conference, West Point, 27 March 2015).

218 Sennett in P. Brooks (ed.), The Humanities and Public Life (2014), at 102.

219 Kennedy, D., ‘The Hermeneutic of Suspicion in Contemporary American Legal Thought’, (2014) 25 Law Critique 91CrossRefGoogle Scholar. On ideology, see Herman and Vervaeck, supra note 10; Marks, S., ‘Big Brother is Bleeping Us – With the Message That Ideology Doesn't Matter’, (2001) 12 EJIL 109CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Olesen, J., ‘Towards a Politics of Hermeneutics’, in Bianchi, A., Peat, D., and Windsor, M. (eds.), Interpretation in International Law (2015), at 311–30CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

note 10

220 Marks, supra note 64, at 996; Alber, ‘Narrativisation’, in Herman, Jahn and Ryan, supra note 5, at 386: ‘the process of narrativisation consists of giving narrative form to a discourse for the purpose of facilitating a better understanding of the represented phenomena’.

note 64
note 5

221 See F. Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (1982).

222 J. Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (2010), at 9.

223 Ibid., at 12.


224 White, J. B., ‘Law as Language: Reading Law and Reading Literature’, (1982) 60 Tex.L.Rev. 415Google Scholar, at 444.

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