UPDATE: Anwar al-Aulaqi: Targeted Killings, Self-Defense, and War Crimes

UPDATE

The Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union have filed suit against the Treasury Department for rules that require them to obtain a license before they can challenge the inclusion of Anwar al-Aulaqi on the U.S. list of individiduals who may be targeted for extrajudicial execution.

Spencer S. Hsu, “Civil rights groups sue Treasury over targeting of terror suspects for killing, Washington Post, August 4, 2010

The targeting of Al-Aulaqi raises questions regarding the bases of the international law governing the use of force. Beyond the question of whether the U.S. is or is not violating the most basic norms of iternational law, the Al-Alauqi case raises fundamental questions relating to our international legal strategy and our vision of the future world we hope to shape. On April 7, 2010, we wrote the following:

The United States has gotten itself into a terrible jam, having adopted the legal justification of the Bush administration for targeted killings.

The Washington Post reports today that,

A Muslim cleric tied to the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound airliner has become the first U.S. citizen added to a list of suspected terrorists the CIA is authorized to kill, a U.S. official said Tuesday.

Anwar al-Aulaqi, who resides in Yemen, was previously placed on a target list maintained by the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command…

Because he is a U.S. citizen, adding Aulaqi to the CIA list required special approval from the White House, officials said. The move means that Aulaqi would be considered a legitimate target not only for a military strike carried out by U.S. and Yemeni forces, but also for lethal CIA operations.

“He’s in everybody’s sights,” said the U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the topic’s sensitivity….

–Greg Miller, “Muslim cleric Aulaqi is 1st U.S. citizen on list of those CIA is allowed to kill,” Washington Post, April 7, 2010

If this death warrant is executed in circumstances that do not justify the use of force in self-defense, either at the international or at the domestic level with the permission of the territorial state, its execution may constitute a war crime.

Some lawyers have won the argument within the Obama administration that it is lawful to kill a member of a terrorist organization, particularly if he has been involved in past acts of terrorism, wherever he can be found.

This argument is based on provisions of humanitarian law or “the law of war” that distinguish between combatants who are lawful targets and non-combatants who are not.

It ignores, however, the fact that provisions of humanitarian law are themselves limited by key provisions of the United Nations Charter, particularly Article 2 paragraph 4 which prohibits the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, except in the case of self-defense against an armed attack as provided in Article 51.

It is universally recognized that Article 2 paragraph 4 is a norm of jus cogens, or mandatory law from which there can be no exception. Humanitarian law grants no right to act beyond the limitations of this prohibition.

The use of lethal force to punish past actions, moreover, constitutes an armed reprisal, which is universally recognized as prohibited by international law.

In other cases, where the territorial state grants its permission to a foreign state to carry out a targeted killing, such a killing is legal under international law only if it meets the requirements of international human rights law. For the territorial state can cede to another state no greater rights than it itself possesses, and indeed it is far from clear that it can do even this.

Both Article 2 paragraph 4 of the Charter and international human rights law allow for the use of lethal force as may be required for self-defense or for self-defense and the defense of others by the authorities of the territorial state.

In both cases the requirement is that force be used only as a last resort against an ongoing or imminent use of force by the target, or after judicial proceedings and due process of law.

This element is initially self-judging in character, opening the door to abuse. However, just as police allegations that they have acted in self-defense are subject to judicial review, the self-defense justification of a state conducting targeted killings, and of the individuals executing the state’s orders, are subject to review by the courts of other countries exercising universal jurisdiction and potentially, at least in the future, by the International Criminal Court. Actions taken by a state in exercise of the right of self-defense are, moreover, to be reported to the U.N. Security Council under Article 51 of the Charter.

The use of force against an individual who has laid down his arms or ceased and desisted from active participation in attacks (or, in the language of humanitarian law, has withdrawn from combat or placed himself hors de combat) is an extrajudicial killing or assassination, and would also constitute a war crime.

The problem here is that the U.S. government has become so accustomed to being prosecutor, judge and executioner that it has forgotten that international legal norms are involved, whose content and validity are necessarily determined by others, and that the ultimate validity of the legal justifications for targeted killings are likely one day to be determined by the judges of an international court or a national court exercising universal jurisdiction.

Just as individuals who participated in the “harsh interrogation techniques” program carried out under the Bush administration would be well advised to carefully choose the countries they travel to, now but also particularly in five or ten years, those individuals currently involved in the targeted killings program should also be very confident they are acting in lawful exercise of the right of self-defense when executing their orders.

For if their actions do not satisfy the requirements of self-defense, they constitute the commission of unlawful assassinations, and probably war crimes. As established at Nuremberg, the argument that such actions were carried out under the orders of superiors, or “due obdience”, is not a permissible defense. Nor is the argument that the defendant believed he was acting in accordance with international law likely to be given any weight as a defense.

The United States has now become an official hit squad, which will go out and kill anyone on its list of targetable individuals.

Yet it is hard to see how the United States can kill its way to peace, in Afghanistan or in the struggle against terrorists in different countries throughout the world.

Whatever the short-term gains from the current approach, and it is far from clear that it does not create more terrorists than it kills, President Obama and his international lawyers need to rethink their approach to targeted killings.

They need to reexamine the issue, both in order to avoid extrajudicial executions and assassinations, and to shape the standards which will also guide other states in the future in deciding whether or not to put someone on a hit list and then to go out and kill him.

It is time to back off from the Wild West, and to return to civilization and the task of building out a viable international legal order.

(end of April 7, 2010 article)

See also the following articles by the Observer:

Targeted Killings by Drone Aircraft: A View From India, and Some Observations, May 20, 2010

Other articles by the Observer on targeted killings may be found by entering “Targeted Killings” in the Search box on the lower right side of the home page.

The Trenchant Observer

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