Killing an Unarmed Bin Laden During a Secret Operation Within a Sovereign Nation – Did US Break International Law?

Posted on May 4, 2011


Now that the heat of the moment has cooled, thought is now being given to just what the US has done, how it did  it and what it will accomplish by entering a sovereign nation and killing an unarmed war criminal.  Was it an act of war or revenge?  Ethically and legally, the US may have turned the wrong corner and in doing so sullied its founding principles.  Here is a thought-provoking article on the US action from Germany’s  Speigel Online.  It is one of many articles published globally that question the validity of the operation.

Justice, American Style

Was Bin Laden’s Killing Legal?

An Analysis by Thomas Darnstädt

A victory celebration on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington on Sunday night.

US President Barack Obama gets precious few opportunities to announce a victory. So it’s no wonder he chose grand words on Sunday night as the TV crews’ spotlights shone upon him and he informed the nation about the deadly strike against Osama bin Laden. “Justice has been done,” he said.

It may be that this sentence comes back to haunt him in the years to come. What is just about killing a feared terrorist in his home in the middle of Pakistan? For the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, and for patriotic Americans who saw their grand nation challenged by a band of criminals, the answer might be simple. But international law experts, who have been grappling with the question of the legal status of the US-led war on terror for years, find Obama’s pithy words on Sunday night more problematic.

Claus Kress, an international law professor at the University of Cologne, argues that achieving retributive justice for crimes, difficult as that may be, is “not achieved through summary executions, but through a punishment that is meted out at the end of a trial.” Kress says the normal way of handling a man who is sought globally for commissioning murder would be to arrest him, put him on trial and ultimately convict him. In the context of international law, military force can be used in the arrest of a suspect, and this may entail gun fire or situations of self-defense that, in the end, leave no other possibility than to kill a highly dangerous and highly suspicious person. These developments can also lead to tragic and inevitable escalations of the justice process.

It is unfortunate. And it is certainly no reason for the indescribable jubilation that broke out on Sunday night across America — and especially not for applause inside the CIA’s operations center.

Not Everything the US Declares To Be War Really Is

But Obama and his predecessor Bush never sought the kind of justice that would have seen bin Laden tried in an international court. As early as his election campaign in 2008, Obama swore he would “kill bin Laden” and finish the job begun by his predecessor after 9/11. “We went to war against al-Qaida to protect our citizens, our friends and our allies,” the president explained on Sunday night. A US national security official didn’t beat around the bush, telling Reuters, “This was a kill operation.” And why shouldn’t it be? The very goal of war is the defeat of the opponent, the killing of enemies through legal means. War is war.

In truth, it isn’t quite that simple. And not everything that the United States declares to be war really is. Legal experts like Kress say it is “questionable whether the USA can still claim to be engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qaida.”

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