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Narrative Kill or Capture: Unreliable Narration in International Law



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.



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1 S. Rushdie, Joseph Anton (2013), at 360.

2 R. Barthes, ‘Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative’, in Image, Music, Text (1977), at 79.

3 Phelan, J. and Rabinowitz, P., ‘Narrative as Rhetoric’, in Herman, al., Narrative Theory: Core Concepts and Critical Debates (2012), 3, at 5.

4 P. Goldie, The Mess Inside: Narrative, Emotion, and the Mind (2012), at 2.

5 Miller, J. H., ‘Narrative’, in Lentricchia, F. and McLaughlin, T. (eds.), Critical Terms for Literary Study (1995), at 67. See generally Herman, D., Jahn, M., and Ryan, M. (eds.), Routledge Encyclopaedia of Narrative Theory (2005); Herman, L. and Vervaeck, B. (eds.), Handbook of Narrative Analysis (2006).

6 J. Culler, The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (2001), at 189. Narratology traditionally drew on two main sources: first, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ application of linguistic principles to the study of myths, concluding that apparently disparate mythical narratives could be reduced to a limited number of component mythemes; and secondly, the formalist analysis of Russian folk tales, which revealed that a small number of narrative ‘functions’ and roles constituted the underlying grammar of storytelling. See D. Macey, The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory (2000), at 264; Lévi-Strauss, C., ‘The Structural Study of Myth’, (1955) 68 Journal of American Folklore 428; V. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (1968); C. Bremond, Logique du récit (1973); A. Greimas, Sémantique structurale: Recherche de method (1966).

7 Bremond, C., ‘The Logic of Narrative Possibilities’, (1980) 11 (3)NLH 387.

8 M. Aristodemou, Law & Literature: Journeys From Her to Eternity (2000), at 3: ‘Narratives thus invent rather than reflect our lives, ourselves and our worlds . . . [N]arratives are not neutral: they investigate, but also suggest, create and legislate meanings’.

9 Brooks, P., ‘Narrative Transactions – Does the Law Need a Narratology?’, (2006) 18 (1)Yale J.L.& Human. 1, at 24.

10 Miller, supra note 5, at 69. For a discussion of the interaction between narrative and ideology, see Herman, L. and Vervaeck, B., ‘Ideology’ in Herman, D. (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Narrative (2007), at 217; T. Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic (1990); A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971).

11 See, e.g., Ryan, M. (ed.), Narrative Across Media: The Languages of Storytelling (2004); Hyvärinen, M., Hatavara, M., and Hydén, L. (eds.), The Travelling Concepts of Narrative (2013).

12 Herman, Jahn, and Ryan, supra note 5, at ix.

13 Cognitive narratology is discussed under the rubric of ‘postclassical narratology’: Herman, D. (ed.), Narratologies: New Perspectives on Narrative Analysis (1999). See generally Herman, D. (ed.), Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences (2003); M. Ryan, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence and Narrative Theory (1991); M. Turner, Reading Minds: The Study of English in the Age of Cognitive Science (1991); M. Fludernik, Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology (1996); Bernaerts, L., De Geest, D., Herman, L., and Vervaeck, B. (eds.), Stories and Minds: Cognitive Approaches to Literary Narrative (2013).

14 Jahn, ‘Cognitive Narratology’, in Herman, Jahn, and Ryan, supra note 5, at 67; M. Ryan, ‘Toward a Definition of Narrative’ in Herman, supra note 10, at 27: ‘[S]tories can exist in the mind as pure patterns of information, inspired by life experience or created by the imagination, independently of their representation through the signs of a specific medium’.

15 D. Herman, ‘Towards a Transmedial Narratology’ in Ryan, supra note 11, at 47. See Sternberg, M., ‘Universals of Narrative and Their Cognitivist Fortunes’, (2003) 24 (2)Poetics Today 297, at 306: ‘Tentacles would appear the right word for such expansionist, all-devouring interdisciplinarity, stretchable to everything possibly associated with cognitive representations, yet accountable to nothing beyond its own psychological methodology’.

16 For differing perspectives on the relationship between narrativity and fictionality, see J. R. Searle, ‘The Logical Status of Fictional Discourse’, in Expression and Meaning: Studies in the Theory of Speech Acts (1979), at 65; D. Cohn, The Distinction of Fiction (1999); R. Walsh, The Rhetoric of Fictionality: Narrative Theory and the Idea of Fiction (2007).

17 R. Smith, Being Human: Historical Knowledge and the Creation of Human Nature (2007), at 174; White, H., ‘The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory’, (1984) 23 (1)Hist. Theory 1; H. White, The Content of The Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (1990).

18 D. Carr, Time, Narrative and History (1991), at 65.

19 P. Ricoeur, ‘The Narrative Function’, in Hermeneutics & the Human Sciences (1981), at 274.

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.

26 Exceptions include ‘Legal Storytelling’, (1989) 89 Mich. L. Rev. 2073; Brooks, P. and Gewirtz, P. (eds.), Law's Stories: Narrative and Rhetoric in the Law (1998); Wolff, L., ‘Let's Talk About Lex: Narrative Analysis as Both Research Method and Teaching Technique in Law’, (2014) 35 Adel. L. Rev. 3.

27 Edwards, L. H., ‘The Convergence of Analogical and Dialectical Imaginations in Legal Discourse’, (1996) 20 Leg. Stud. Forum 7.

28 See, e.g., R. Burns, A Theory of the Trial (1998); H. Porter Abbott, Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (2008), at 179: ‘a trial can be described as a huge, unpolished narrative compendium featuring the contest of two sets of authors, each trying to make their central narrative of events prevail by spinning narrative segments for their rhetorical impact’.

29 See Levinson, S., ‘Law as Literature’, (1982) 60 Tex. L. Rev. 373; R. Posner, Law and Literature (2009); I. Ward, Law and Literature: Possibilities and Perspectives (2008); Aristodemou, supra note 8.

30 R. Dworkin, Law's Empire (1986), at 228–32.

31 Cover, R. M., ‘The Supreme Court 1982 Term – Foreword: Nomos and Narrative’, (1983) 97 Harv. L. Rev. 4, at 5.

32 Brooks, P., ‘Narrative in and of the Law’ in Phelan, J. and Rabinowitz, P. (eds.), A Companion to Narrative Theory (2008), at 415.

33 P. Goodrich, Law in the Courts of Love: Literature and Other Minor Jurisprudences (1996), at 112: ‘Law is a literature which denies its literary qualities. It is a play of words which asserts an absolute seriousness; it is a genre of rhetoric which represses its moments of invention or of fiction; it is a language which hides its indeterminacy in the justificatory discourse of judgment; it is procedure based on analogy, metaphor and repetition and yet it lays claim to being a cold or disembodied prose, a science without poetry or desire; it is a narrative which assumes the epic proportions of truth; it is, in short, a speech or writing which forgets the violence of the word and the terror or jurisdiction of the text’.

34 C. Douzinas and R. Warrington, Postmodern Jurisprudence: The Law of the Text in the Text of the Law (1991).

35 Singh, S., ‘Narrative and Theory: Formalism's Eternal Return’, (2014) 84 BYBIL 304, at 309: ‘[N]arrative analysis seeks to look beyond a legal theory text's apparent coherence and unity, its apparent self-sufficiency, rather seeking to highlight and then breach its “strategies of containment”’; West, R., ‘Jurisprudence as Narrative: An Aesthetic Analysis of Modern Legal Theory’, (1985) 60 N.Y.U.L.Rev. 145.

36 A. Amsterdam and J. Brunner, Minding the Law (2000), at 111.

37 Brooks, supra note 9, at 24.

38 Simpson, G., ‘The Sentimental Life of International Law’, (2015) 3 (1)London Review of International Law 3, at 11.

39 F. Kratochwil, The Status of Law in World Society: Meditations on the Role and Rule of Law (2014), at 136; T. Skouteris, The Notion of Progress in International Law Discourse (2010); Altwicker, T. and Diggelmann, O., ‘How is Progress Constructed in International Legal Scholarship?’, (2014) 25 (2)EJIL 425.

40 Ricoeur, supra note 19, at 294; Kennedy, D., ‘The Disciplines of International Law and Policy’, (1999) 12 LJIL 9, at 90: ‘an elaborate disciplinary practice retelling international law's progressive development, which serves as a common intellectual background for professionals in the field’.

41 See, e.g., R. Teitel, Humanity's Law (2011); A. Trindade, The Access of Individuals to International Justice (2011); Frankenberg, G., ‘Human Rights and the Belief in a Just World’, (1999) 12 ICON 35.

42 See, e.g., K Alter, The New Terrain of International Law: Courts, Politics, Rights (2014); Kingsbury, B., ‘International Courts: Uneven Judicialisation in Global Order’, in Crawford, J. and Koskenniemi, M. (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to International Law (2012), at 203–27.

43 See, e.g., Simma, B., ‘From Bilateralism to Community Interest in International Law’, (1994) 250 RCADI 217; H. Weiler, J. H., ‘The Geology of International Law – Governance, Democracy and Legitimacy’, (2004) 64 ZaöRV 547.

44 Diggelmann, O., ‘The Periodization of the History of International Law’, in Fassbender, B. and Peters, A. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law (2012), 997, at 1008.

45 Koller, D., ‘. . . and New York and The Hague and Tokyo and Geneva and Nuremberg and . . .: The Geographies of International Law’, (2012) 23 (1)EJIL 97, at 100.

46 See, e.g., M. Koskenniemi, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870–1960 (2001), at 2: ‘no assumption about history as a monolithic or linear progress narrative is involved’; S. Moyn, The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History (2010); Fassbender, B. and Peters, A., ‘Introduction: Towards a Global History of International Law’, in Fassbender, B. and Peters, A. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of International Law (2012), 1, at 2.

47 J. Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), at xxiv.

48 Boldizar, A. and Korhonen, O., ‘Ethics, Morals and International Law’, (1999) 10 EJIL 279, at 294.

49 Kennedy, D., ‘Law and the Political Economy of the World’, (2013) 26 LJIL 7, at 23.

50 Simpson, G., ‘Linear Law: The History of International Criminal Law’ in Schwöbel, C. (ed.), Critical Approaches to International Criminal Law (2014), at 159 (historical narratives that are privileged in international criminal tribunals include individualized historical narratives over structural histories; linear over fragmentary histories; and hegemonic histories which celebrate agency over counter-hegemonic, or social, accounts).

51 Kratochwil, supra note 39, at 167.

52 Ricoeur, supra note 19, at 278.

53 See Lixinski, L., ‘Narratives of the International Legal Order and Why They Matter’, (2013) 6 (1)Erasmus L.Rev. 2.

54 J. Halverson et al., Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism (2011), at 14.

55 M. Koskenniemi, From Apology to Utopia: The Structure of International Legal Argument (2005), at 512.

56 M. Koskenniemi, ‘The Fate of Public International Law: Between Technique and Politics’, in The Politics of International Law (2011), 331, at 355.

57 See, e.g., J. Klabbers, A. Peters, and G. Ulfstein, The Constitutionalization of International Law (2009); Kumm, M., ‘The Legitimacy of International Law: A Constitutionalist Framework of Analysis’, (2004) 15 EJIL 907; Collins, R., ‘Constitutionalism as Liberal-Juridical Consciousness: Echoes from International Law's Past’, (2009) 22 (2)LJIL 251; de Wet, E., ‘The International Constitutional Order’, (2006) 55 ICLQ 51.

58 For critique, see Rosenfeld, M., ‘Is Global Constitutionalism Meaningful or Desirable?’, (2014) 25 (1)EJIL 177; Dunoff, al., ‘Hard Times: Progress Narratives, Historical Contingency and the Fate of Global Constitutionalism’, (2015) 4 (1)Global Constitutionalism 1.

59 See UN International Law Commission, Fragmentation of International Law: Difficulties Arising from the Diversification and Expansion of International Law, A/CN.4/L.682, 13 April 2006; Benvenisti, E. and Downs, G. W., ‘The Empire's New Clothes: Political Economy and the Fragmentation of International Law’, (2007) 60 Stan.L.Rev. 101; Young, M. (ed.), Regime Interaction in International Law: Facing Fragmentation (2012).

60 N. Krisch, Beyond Constitutionalism: The Pluralist Structure of Postnational Law (2010), at 23; Walker, N., ‘Beyond Boundary Disputes and Basic Grids: Mapping the Global Disorder of Normative Orders’, (2008) 6 ICON 373; N. Roughan Authorities (2013); P. Berman, Global Legal Pluralism: A Jurisprudence of Law Beyond Borders (2012).

61 S. Douglas-Scott, ‘Brave New World? The Challenges of Transnational Law and Legal Pluralism to Contemporary Legal Theory’, in Nobles, R. and Schiff, D. (eds.), Law, Society and Community: Socio-Legal Essays in Honour of Roger Cotterell (2014).

62 Koskenniemi, supra note 56, at 353–4. For that reason, Koskenniemi advocates a constitutionalist mindset, understood as a ‘programme of moral and political regeneration’ rather than an architectural project: ‘Constitutionalism as a Mindset: Reflections on Kantian Themes about International Law and Globalisation’, (2007) 8 Theo Inq L 9, at 18.

63 Kingsbury, B., Krisch, N., and Stewart, R., ‘The Emergence of Global Administrative Law’, (2005) 68 LCP 15, at 17.

64 Marks, S., ‘Naming Global Administrative Law’, (2005) 37 N.Y.U.J.Int'l Law & Pol. 995, at 1001.

65 Ranganathan, S., ‘The Value of Narratives: The India-USA Nuclear Deal in Terms of Fragmentation, Pluralism, Constitutionalisation and Global Administrative Law’, (2013) 6 (1)Erasmus L.Rev. 17, at 30.

66 R. Goodman and D. Jinks, Socializing States: Promoting Human Rights Through International Law (2013), at 25.

67 Harrison, J., ‘The Case for Investigative Legal Pluralism in International Economic Law Linkage Debates’, (2014) 2 (1)London Review of International Law 115, at 116. For a defence of international law as a system, see Crawford, J., ‘Chance, Order, Change: The Course of International Law’, (2013) 365 RCADI 137252.

68 Kratochwil, supra note 39, at 139.

69 Marks, supra note 64, at 996.

70 Burgis-Kasthala, M. L., ‘Over-stating Palestine's UN Membership Bid? An Ethnographic Study on the Narratives of Statehood’, (2014) 25 (3)EJIL 677, at 690: ‘It is with storytelling that it may be possible to assign responsibility and authority to the speaker as situated within a disciplinary dialogue’.

71 Solum, L. B., ‘Narrative, Normativity, and Causation’, (2010) Mich.St.L.Rev. 597, at 602.

72 F. Johns, Non-Legality in International Law (2013), at 218.

73 Ranganathan, supra note 65, at 30.

74 See the discussion of voice, distance, and focalization in Abbott, supra note 28, at 70–75. Narrative perspective is a central preoccupation of enunciative narratology: see, generally, Patron, S., ‘Enunciative Narratology: A French Speciality’, in Olson, G. (ed.), Current Trends in Narratology (2011), at 312.

75 R. Scholes and R. Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative (1966), at 240. Cf. no-narrator approaches to narrative theory: see, e.g., A. Banfield, Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction (1982).

76 Brooks, supra note 9, at 25.

77 Herman, supra note 10, at 282.

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

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.

84 Booth, supra note 79, at 307.

85 See T. Kindt and H. Müller, The Implied Author: Concept and Controversy (2006); Nünning, A., ‘Deconstructing and Reconceptualizing the Implied Author: The Resurrection of an Anthropomorphized Passepartout or the Obituary of a Critical Phantom?’, (1997) 8 (2)Anglistik 95.

86 See, e.g., Yacobi, T., ‘Narrative and Normative Patterns: On Interpreting Fiction’, (1987) 3 (2)J.Lit.Stud. 18; J. Phelan, Living To Tell About It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration (2005), at 38–49; Shen, D., ‘Implied Author, Authorial Audience and Context’, (2013) 21 (2)Narrative 140.

87 See S. Chatman, Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film (1990), at 77.

88 Nünning, A., ‘Reconceptualizing Unreliable Narration: Synthesising Cognitive and Rhetorical Approaches’, in Phelan, J. and Rabinowitz, P. (eds.), A Companion to Narrative Theory (2005), 89, at 92.

89 For cognitively-influenced accounts of narrative perspective, see Van Peer, W. and Chatman, S. (eds.), New Perspectives on Narrative Perspective (2001).

90 S. Rimmon-Kennan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics (1983), at 87.

91 Nünning, supra note 88, at 95.

92 Ibid., at 105.

93 See, e.g., Cohn, D., ‘Discordant Narration’, (2000) 34 (2)Style 307; Olson, G., ‘Reconsidering Unreliability: Fallible and Untrustworthy Narrators’, (2003) 11 (1)Narrative 93.

94 Phelan, supra note 86, at 31–65.

95 Rimmon-Kennan, supra note 90, at 7–8.

96 P. K. Hansen, ‘Reconsidering the Unreliable Narrator’, (2007) Semiotica 165, at 241–4.

97 Heyd, T., ‘Understanding and Handling Unreliable Narratives: A Pragmatic Model and Method’, (2006) 162 Semiotica 217 (citing Grice, ‘Logic and Conversation’, in Cole, P. and Morgan, J. (eds.), Syntax and Semantics, Vol 3: Speech Acts (1975), at 41; D. Sperber and D. Wilson, Relevance: Communication and Cognition (1995)).

98 On the difference between narrativity and fictionality, supra note 16.

99 Phelan, supra note 86, at 67.

100 Fludernik, M., ‘Fiction vs Non-Fiction: Narratological Differentiation’, in Füger, W. and Helbig, J. (eds.), Erzählen und Erzähltheorie im 20 (2001), at 85–103.

101 Shen, D. and Xu, D., ‘Intratextuality, Intertextuality and Extratextuality: Unreliability in Autobiography versus Fiction’, (2007) 28 (1)Poetics Today 43.

102 Nünning, supra note 88, at 104.

103 Ibid.

104 E. Goffman, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (1974), at 3 (distinguishing between the ‘content of a current perception and the reality status we give to what is thus enclosed or bracketed within perception’).

105 See, e.g., Minsky, M., ‘A Framework for Representing Knowledge’, in Haugeland, J. (ed.), Mind Design II: Philosophy, Psychology, Artificial Intelligence (1997), at 111; R. Schank and R. Abelson, Scripts, Plans, Goals and Understanding: An Inquiry Into Human Knowledge Structures (1977).

106 See Jahn, M., ‘Frames, Preferences and the Reading of Third-Person Narratives: Towards a Cognitive Narratology’, (1997) 18 Poetics Today 441.

107 Wählisch, M., ‘Cognitive Frames of Interpretation in International Law’, in Bianchi, A., Peat, D., and Windsor, M. (eds.), Interpretation in International Law (2015), 331, at 334–5.

108 Schachter, O., ‘The Invisible College of International Lawyers’, (1977) 72 NWULR 217; d'Aspremont, J., Gazzini, T., Nollkaemper, A., and Werner, W. (eds), International Law as a Profession (2016) (forthcoming); Crawford, J., ‘International Law as Discipline and Profession’, (2012) 106 Proceedings of the Annual Meeting (ASIL) 471; M. Reisman, ‘International Law as a Profession: Dilemmas of Identity and Commitment’, in The Quest for World Order and Human Dignity in the Twenty-First Century (2012), at 455–79.

109 M. Weber, Max Weber on Law in Economy and Society (1954), at 6–7.

110 Kennedy, D., ‘One, Two, Three Many Legal Orders: Legal Pluralism and the Cosmopolitan Dream’, (2007) 31 NYU Rev.L.&Soc.Change 641, at 650.

111 M. Koskenniemi, ‘Between Commitment and Cynicism: Outline for a Theory of International Law as Practice’, in The Politics of International Law (2011), 271, at 293.

112 See, e.g., Kennedy, D., ‘The Politics of the Invisible College: International Governance and the Politics of Expertise’ (2001) 5 EHRLR 463.

113 Koskenniemi, M., ‘International Law: Constitutionalism, Managerialism and the Ethos of Legal Education’, (2007) 1 E.J.Leg.Stud. 1, at 8.

114 Roberts, A., ‘Clash of Paradigms: Actors and Analogies Shaping the Investment Treaty System’, (2013) 107 (1)AJIL 45, at 56.

115 Koskenniemi, supra note 56, at 337.

116 S. Fish, Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (1982); I. Johnstone, The Power of Deliberation: International Law, Politics and Organizations (2011), at 33–54; M. Waibel, ‘Interpretive Communities in International Law’, in Bianchi, A., Peat, D., and Windsor, M. (eds.), Interpretation in International Law (2015), at 147–65. On situatedness, see Korhonen, O., ‘New International Law: Silence, Defence or Deliverance?’, (1996) 7 EJIL 1; Peat, D. and Windsor, M., ‘Playing the Game of Interpretation: On Meaning and Metaphor in International Law’, in Bianchi, A., Peat, D., and Windsor, M. (eds.), Interpretation in International Law (2015), 3, at 14–15.

117 Johnstone, supra note 116, at 44.

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.

122 Marks, supra note 64, at 996.

123 Scobbie, I., ‘A View of Delft: Some Thoughts About Thinking About International Law’ in Evans, M. (ed.), International Law (2014), 53, at 64.

124 Hansen, supra note 96.

125 Venzke, supra note 120, at 62–64.

126 Wählisch, supra note 107, at 332.

127 Dehm, S., ‘Framing International Migration’, (2015) 3 (1)London Review of International Law 133, at 137.

128 See, e.g., Alston, P., ‘The CIA and Targeted Killing Beyond Borders’, (2011) 2 Harv. National Security J. 283; Heller, K., ‘One Hell of a Killing Machine: Signature Strikes and International Law’, (2013) 11 (1)JICJ 89; Goodman, R., ‘The Power to Kill or Capture Enemy Combatants’, (2013) 24 (3)EJIL 819; Finkelstein, C., Ohlin, J., and Altman, A. (eds.), Targeted Killings: Law and Morality in an Asymmetric World (2012).

129 See, e.g., N. Melzer, Targeted Killing in International Law (2009).

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. 1379; 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).

132 Soueif, A., ‘The Function of Narrative in the “War on Terror’’’, in Miller, C. (ed.), War on Terror: The Amnesty Lectures (2009), at 28. See also A. Kundnani, The Muslims are Coming: Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror (2014).

133 The US described its drone program in terms of its ability to ‘distinguish . . . effectively between an Al Qaeda terrorist and innocent civilians’, and describes its drones as capable of conducting strikes with ‘astonishing’ and ‘surgical’ precision: J. Brennan, ‘The Ethics and Efficacy of the President's Counter-Terrorism Strategy’, 30 April 2012. Available at: (accessed 7 August 2015).

134 See Johns, F., Joyce, R., and Pahuja, S. (eds.), Events: The Force of International Law (2011).

135 Kahn, P. W., ‘Imagining Warfare’ (2013) 24 (1)EJIL 199, at 224.

136 See, e.g., Satia, P., ‘Drones: A History From the British Middle East’, (2014) 5 (1)Humanity 1.

137 Moyn, S., ‘Drones and Imagination: A Response to Paul Kahn’, (2013) 24 (1)EJIL 227, at 229.

138 Ibid., at 233.

139 See, e.g., Milanovic, M., ‘The Lost Origins of Lex Specialis: Rethinking the Relationship between Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law’ in Ohlin, J. (ed.), Theoretical Boundaries of Armed Conflict and Human Rights (2014); d'Aspremont, J. and Tranchez, E., ‘The Quest for a Non-Conflictual Coexistence of International Human Rights Law and Humanitarian Law: Which Role for the Lex Specialis Principle?’, in Kolb, R. and Gaggioli, G. (eds.), Research Handbook on Human Rights and Humanitarian Law (2013).

140 ‘A Court for Targeted Killings’, New York Times (13 February 2013).

141 See, e.g., UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston – Study on Targeted Killings, A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, 28 May 2010; Buchanan, A. and Keohane, R., ‘Toward a Drone Accountability Regime’, (2015) 29 (1)Ethics and International Affairs 15; N. Crawford, Accountability for Killing: Moral Responsibility for Collateral Damage in America's Post-9/11 Wars (2013).

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

143 UN Human Rights Council, supra 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. 175; Chesney, R., ‘Who May Be Killed? Anwar al-Awlaki as a Case Study in the International Legal Regulation of Lethal Force’, (2010) 13 YIHL 3.

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 75. For a discussion of speechmaking, see Ingber, R., ‘Interpretation Catalysts and Executive Branch Legal Decisionmaking’, (2013) 38 Yale J.Int'l L. 359.

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), 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.

156 Koh, supra 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 1; 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.

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.

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

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 267.

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), 214, at 230–31.

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

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. 512.

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.

184 Koh, H. H., ‘The State Department Legal Adviser's Office: Eight Decades in Peace and War’, (2012) 100 Geo.L.J. 1747, 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 23, at 29; Bethlehem, D., ‘Self-Defense Against an Imminent or Actual Armed Attack by Nonstate Actors’, (2013) 106 AJIL 770.

187 Marks, supra note 64, at 998.

188 Johns, supra note 72, at 7–8.

189 Gray, supra note 152, at 87.

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), 1, 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), 534, at 568–9.

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

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 273.

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 605.

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 811; 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.

200 Riggan, supra note 79, at 10.

201 Kennedy, D., ‘Lawfare and Warfare’, in Crawford, J. and Koskenniemi, M. (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to International Law (2012), 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 155.

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

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

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), 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 252.

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

207 Chamayou, supra note 196, at 167.

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 618.

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), at 283–316.

210 Luban, D., ‘Military Necessity and the Cultures of Military Law’, (2013) 26 (2)LJIL 315, 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.

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. 1.

214 MacIntyre, supra note 21, at 253.

215 Solum, supra note 71.

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 887.

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 91. 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 109; Olesen, J., ‘Towards a Politics of Hermeneutics’, in Bianchi, A., Peat, D., and Windsor, M. (eds.), Interpretation in International Law (2015), at 311–30.

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’.

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. 415, at 444.

* Junior Research Fellow in Law, Hertford College, University of Oxford []. An earlier version of this article was presented at the ‘Turf and Texture: Narrating the Legal International’ workshop at the University of Cambridge in June 2013. The workshop was funded by the Institute for Global Law and Policy at Harvard Law School, as well as by the Global Governance Programme at the European University Institute and King's College, Cambridge. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers and the following individuals for their incisive comments on earlier drafts: Philip Allott, Andrea Bianchi, James Crawford, Jessie Hohmann, Amrita Kapur, Charlotte Leslie, Lucas Lixinski, Odette Murray, Daniel Peat, Ernst-Ulrich Petersmann, Surabhi Ranganathan, Christine Schwöbel, Sahib Singh, and Wouter Werner.


Narrative Kill or Capture: Unreliable Narration in International Law



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