(CNSNews.com) – The death of Osama bin Laden once again has drawn attention to the issue of “extrajudicial” actions such as targeted killings, but some of those now welcoming bin Laden’s demise -- or at least responding cautiously -- have not always reacted that way in similar past instances.
The U.S. Navy SEAL operation targeting bin Laden in Pakistan Sunday was “justified as an act of national self-defense” against a “lawful military target,” Attorney General Eric Holder told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.
Not so, say some legal experts. “The joy is understandable, but in some respects, unattractive,” the human rights lawyer and activist Geoffrey Robertson wrote in Britain’s The Independent.
“It endorses what looks increasingly like a cold-blooded assassination ordered by a president who, as a former law professor, knows the absurdity of his statement that ‘justice was done.’”
“Extrajudicial killing is not permitted under international (or any other) law,” Gideon Boas and Pascale Chifflet of the Monash University law school in Australia argued in the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday.
“That is not to say that assassinating state enemies does not take place. It is practiced, most notably and openly by Israel but also by the United States and others, and has been for many years. But that does not make it legal.”
Others are less unequivocal.
“I’m not saying it’s my personal view that he should have been killed, because I think governments, I mean obviously have a responsibility not to go around taking people out,” Philippe Sands, human rights lawyer and professor of law at University College in London, told Australia’s ABC radio.
“That said, Osama bin Laden is in a sort of unique category of one,” Sands continued. “He obviously posed a threat to the United States. The United States is entitled to take steps to protect itself against attack.”
In March 2010, State Department legal advisor Harold Koh in a speech presented a legal basis for the targeted killing of terrorists.
“In this ongoing armed conflict, the United States has the authority under international law, and the responsibility to its citizens, to use force, including lethal force, to defend itself, including by targeting persons such as high-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks,” Koh said.
“A state that is engaged in an armed conflict or in legitimate self-defense is not required to provide targets with legal process before the state may use lethal force,” he said.
Among human rights advocacy groups, reaction to bin Laden’s death has been cautious.
“The inability to bring bin Laden to trial for crimes against humanity means that an important avenue for justice has been lost, but that is quite different from determining whether the killing was legal,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement Wednesday.
“The U.S. government should provide all the relevant facts about Osama bin Laden’s death to clarify whether it was justified under international law.”
Amnesty International also has asked for more information.
“Osama bin Laden claimed responsibility for acts of terrorism amounting to crimes against humanity and has inspired others to commit similar acts,” it said in a statement. “Perpetrators of such acts must be brought to justice in a manner consistent with international law.”
Many governments in Europe and elsewhere welcomed the death of bin Laden, as did U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who called it “a watershed moment in our common global fight against terrorism.”
The U.N.’s human rights apparatus reacted cautiously. Human rights commissioner Navanethem Pillay said it would be useful to have more details, adding that the U.N. “has consistently emphasized that all counterterrorism acts must respect international law.”
The Human Rights Council (HRC) is not in session and has yet to respond.
Seven years ago, reaction was significantly different when Israel killed Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin in a helicopter missile strike in Gaza.
The HRC’s predecessor, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, called an emergency session and passed a resolution condemning the “tragic assassination.” Only the U.S. and Australia opposed the measure, while 18 mostly European nations abstained.
Ban’s predecessor, Kofi Annan, “strongly” condemned the killing.
At the time of Yassin’s death in March 2004, Hamas had been responsible for most of the 112 suicide bombings which had killed more than 470 Israelis and injured thousands more since the Palestinian intifada began in late 2000. Israel accused Yassin of directing attacks.
According to records kept by the Zionist Organization of America, Hamas had also by then been responsible for the deaths of 38 of the 51 Americans killed by Palestinian terrorists in the Middle East since 1993.
Yassin’s killing was harshly condemned across the Arab and Islamic world, but European governments were also appalled. They included Britain, France, Germany and Bulgaria, all of which this week welcomed bin Laden’s death.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Yassin killing a “terrorist act.”
This week, Turkish President Abdullah Gul welcomed “with great satisfaction” news of bin Laden’s death, adding that “the way in which he was eliminated should serve as an example to everyone.”
‘That’s just the way it is in the Middle East’
After Yassin’s death the then European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said the E.U. “has consistently condemned ‘extrajudicial killings.’ In this particular case, the condemnation has to be even stronger.”
This week, by contrast, E.U. leaders Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy called the killing bin Laden “a major achievement in our efforts to rid the world of terrorism.”
Amnesty International’s response to the Yassin killing – “once again Israel has chosen to violate international law” – was also much more forthright than its cautious stance this week on bin Laden.
Even the Bush administration State Department called the Yassin assassination “troubling,” with then spokesman Richard Boucher saying that it “doesn’t help efforts to resume progress towards peace.”
President Bush himself was on the record as approving tough action against Hamas.
After the group killed 17 Israelis in a bus bombing in Jerusalem in 2003, Bush was asked whether Israel was justified in its operations against it.
“It is clear that the free world, those who love freedom and peace, must deal harshly with Hamas and the killers,” he said. “And that’s just the way it is in the Middle East.”