Whatever one might think of Osama Bin Laden (whether a terrorist for his alleged role in killing an estimated 5000 Westerners, or a freedom fighter against US imperialism that has killed an estimated two million Afghanis and Iraqis), his targeted killing was a violation of international law.
International law prohibits targeted killed in several ways.
First, a targeted killing, as this one was, is carried out often by the use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of a foreign state. In this case, the president of Pakistan has made it clear that his country did not authorise the US action. Instead, the US sent about two-dozen troops in helicopters into Pakistani airspace and attacked a house in a civilian neighbourhood without the permission of the Pakistani government. As such, Pakistani national security, one of the most crucial attributes of both political independence and territorial integrity, was violated.
Second, targeted killings are summary and extrajudicial executions that violate the right to life. It is hard to believe that the US had no other option but to kill Osama Bin Laden. According to US reports, he was killed by two gunshots to the head at close range fired from US soldiers’ guns. Moreover, after he was killed, the United States claims they took his body. These facts indicate that the well-armed and protected US troops operating illegally on foreign soil could have made an attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden, but instead merely executed him.
When a life is taken in the course of an action that is from the onset illegal, there is a prima facie violation of the human right to life. Even American law makes killing carried out during the commission of another crime a more serious offence. Moreover, if this were not the case, then states could merely elevate a situation in which they were acting to the level of an armed conflict, so as to label their targets combatants and thus enemies who may be lawfully killed. Such action is discredited, even by the US itself who has admonished leaders in the Middle East for the use of excessive force against their people even when those leaders have claimed that they have a war on their hands.
The US president and other US spokespersons have claimed that the troops acted to ensure there was no loss of life on their side of the operation. They seem to have no qualms, however, about killing an apparently innocent woman. They claim she was being used as a human shield, which even if true does not justify her killing. It is in fact a claim frequently made by Israeli soldiers to justify their murder of unarmed women in Palestine on a regular basis.
Similarly, attempts to justify targeted killings as acts of self-defence, or in the interest of national security, are fanciful illusions usually put forward by unapologetic and energetic proponents of US exceptionalism to international law. Leading human rights groups like Amnesty International and the UN Human Rights Council, and the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, have roundly condemned targeted killing as a violation of the human right to life. There is no credible human rights lawyer that supports such killings.
In any event, any US claims of justification in a situation involving the taking of life requires that the US prove that it acted out of necessity or some other legal justification. Not only has the US failed to provide such proof, it has destroyed the best evidence —the body of the very victim. It did so claiming that it had to provide Osama Bin Laden a traditional Muslim burial. A burial at sea after a person is killed on land and without their family and friends present is the farthest thing one can imagine from Islamic tradition. Instead, anecdotal evidence has emerged about how Osama Bin Laden’s body was desecrated by over enthusiastic American soldiers and how Muslim traditions of respect for women were flaunted by male American soldiers who molested Muslim women in the heat of the operation. The US actions concerning Osama Bin Laden’s body look merely like the work of criminals trying to dispose of the evidence of their crime.
Ultimately, the US action, however satisfying to the American thrust for blood retribution for the terrible acts against its people in September 2001, may have set back efforts to bring peace and security to the world by ensuring human rights. It may be true that Osama Bin Laden was taunting America using the restraints of the rule of law. He was saying: “If you think you can kill or capture me within your laws, try to do so.” In the end, he and we showed it wasn’t possible. Instead, the US had to act in violation of the sovereignty of another state and had to carry out an extrajudicial and summary execution.
For most people in the world, little will have changed. The ongoing wanton disregard for international law that has characterised US foreign policy for some time will remain the greatest threat to their security. For the majority of the three billion people living in poverty around the world, the US has shown once again that the mainly Western-written rules of international law mean nothing when they are intended to protect the less powerful.
While powerful Western leaders have slaughtered millions of Iraqis and Afghanis with impunity; while Israel continues to carry out genocide against the Palestinians in full view of the world; while NATO continues to bomb the people of Libya irrespective of the UN Charter, the West is now celebrating the death of someone who, however misled and wrong-minded, was a person who was willing to fight for the poorest and the most vulnerable people in the world to the very end of his life. That the US had to kill him in violation of international law makes all the more believable Osama Bin Laden’s claims of Western hypocrisy and the need for a better alternative.
The writer is a prominent international human rights lawyer.