Global Trends by
Monday 9 May 2011
Human rights concerns on “targeted killings”
The killing of Osama bin Laden, the bombing of Gaddafi’s house, the
deaths of many civilians by drone missile attacks, have highlighted
many concerns and questions of legality and human rights.
The killing of Osama
bin Laden was undoubtedly the biggest news last week. While the shooting
of the al-Qaeda chief filled the headlines for days, the confusion over
what happened and questions over legality of the killing had taken over
the discussion by week’s end.
United States officials
had originally announced that Osama had been killed in a fierce fire-fight
in the house in Pakistan
he was occupying, and that he used his wife as a human shield.
A few days later it was admitted he had been unarmed, and there was
no use of a human shield. Instead, there was no firing at the US forces, excepting from one person
at the initial stage.
The death of Osama bin Laden came a few days after the NATO bombing
of the house of Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi, which the Libyan authorities
said had killed his son and several grandchildren.
This raised the question of whether and when it is legal for one state
or states to kill persons, including political leaders, in other states.
These two events, in Pakistan
highlight the whole issue of targeted killings carried out by a government
agency in the territory of other countries.
For example, drones controlled by operators thousands of miles away
are increasingly being used to fire missiles at buildings and vehicles
in which the targeted persons are believed to be in, with high “collateral
Drone attacks killed 957 civilians in Pakistan in 2010, according to the
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. This was almost as many as the
1,041 civilians killed by suicide bomb attacks in the same year.
The high civilian deaths and casualties caused by US drone attacks have
caused great public resentment in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with the
leaders in these countries warning the US to control or curb the attacks.
As worldwide public clamour increased last week for more information
on what really happened during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s house,
United Nations human rights officials also called on the United States
to disclose the full facts, including whether there had been plans to
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called for
light to be shed on the killing, stressing that all counter-terrorism
operations must respect international law.
Last Friday, a joint statement was issued by Christof Heyns, U.N. special
rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and Martin
Scheinin, special rapporteur on protecting human rights while countering
terrorism. Both report to the UN Human Rights Council.
They said that in certain exceptional cases, deadly force may be used
in operations against terrorists. "However, the norm should be
that terrorists be dealt with as criminals, through legal processes
of arrest, trial and judicially-decided punishment,” they added.
"In respect of the recent use of deadly force against Osama bin
Laden, the United
States of America should disclose the
supporting facts to allow an assessment in terms of international human
rights law standards. It will be particularly important to know if the
planning of the mission allowed an effort to capture bin Laden."
announcement that Osama bin Laden was unarmed when killed has drawn
criticism that he should instead have been captured and brought to trial.
A Reuters report from New
York on 5 May said: “The legality of the commando
killing of the al-Qaeda leader is less clear under international law,
some experts said. President Barack Obama got a boost in U.S.
opinion polls, but the killing raised concerns elsewhere that the United States
may have gone too far in acting as policeman, judge and executioner
of the world's most wanted man.”
The German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung expressed misgivings about
the legality of the killing. "Which law covers the execution of
bin Laden?" wrote its senior editor Heribert Prantl. "U.S. law requires trials before death
penalties are carried out. Executions are forbidden in countries based
on rule of law. Martial law doesn't cover the U.S. operation either. The decision
to kill the godfather of terror was political."
In May last year, the issue of “targeted killings” was addressed in
a landmark report to the Human Rights Council by Philip Alston, who
was then UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary
Alston, who is Law
Professor in New York University, criticized CIA-directed drone
attacks, which he said had resulted in the deaths of many hundreds of
civilians. "Intelligence agencies, which by definition are determined
to remain unaccountable except to their own paymasters, have no place
in running programmes that kill people in other countries," the
Alston suggested that the drone killings carry a significant risk of
becoming war crimes because intelligence agencies "do not generally
operate within a framework which places appropriate emphasis upon ensuring
compliance with international humanitarian law".
More generally, the
report said that in targeted killings, there has been a highly problematic
blurring and expansion of boundaries of the relevant legal frameworks
-- human rights laws, laws of war and use of inter-state force.
Targeted killing is mostly illegal, but in exceptional circumstances
of armed conflict it may be legal.
The report said that states failed to specify the legal justification
for policies and to provide accountability. They refuse to disclose
who was killed, why and with what collateral consequences.
“The result is the displacement of legal standareds with a vaguely defined
“license to kill” and the creation of a major accountability vacuum,”
said the report, concluding that many of the practices violate legal
The report made comments on Israel’s
targeted killings of Palestinians, Russian practices in Chechnya and the US
drone attacks in Afghanistan,
Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan.
The report also warned that whatever rules the US attempts to invoke or apply to
Al Qaeda could be invoked by other States to apply to other non-state
“The failure of States to comply with their human rights law and international
human rights obligations to provide transparency and accountability
for targeted killings is a matter of deep concern.
“To date, no State has disclosed the full legal basis for targeted killings,
including its interpretation of the legal issues discussed above. Nor
has any State disclosed the procedural and other safeguards in place
to ensure that killings are lawful and justified, and the accountability
mechanisms that ensure wrongful killings are investigated, prosecuted
“The refusal by States who conduct targeted killings to provide transparency
about their policies violates the international legal framework that
limits the unlawful use of lethal force against individuals.”
The report recommended that “States should publicly identify the rules
of international law they consider to provide a basis for any targeted
killings they undertake. They should specify the bases for decisions
to kill rather than capture.
“They should specify the procedural safeguards in place to ensure in
advance of targeted killings that they comply with international law,
and the measures taken after any such killing to ensure that its legal
and factual analysis was accurate and, if not, the remedial measures
they would take.
“If a State commits a targeted killing in the territory of another State,
the second State should publicly indicate whether it gave consent, and
on what basis.”
In light of the increasing
use of targeted killings, in recent weeks and years, the issues and
proposals raised in the May 2010 report should be seriously followed
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