Extra-judicial killing is wrong whoever’s doing it

Let me tell you about a truly shocking thing that happened recently.

There was a man who was living in a foreign country, and the military from a third country had a mission to kill him, so they dispatched a team into this other country and set about trying to kill him.  It’s appalling, isn’t it? – ‘a despicable violation of international norms, standards and conventions and […] not in accord with the principles of humanity,’ someone said, and I wholeheartedly agree.  But who’s this man I’m talking about?

Well, it could be the Saudi national Adel Al-Jubeir, who was living in the United States, and was targeted there by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (and who happens to be the Saudi Arabian ambassador).

Or it could be the Saudi national Osama Bin Laden, who was living in Pakistan, and was targeted there by the United States military.

Or it could be the Saudi national Abu Al-Shahri, who was living in Pakistan, and was targeted there by the United States military.

Or it could be the Libyan national Attiyah Al-Rahman, who was living in Pakistan, and was targeted there by the Unites States military.

Or it could even be Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was living in Yemen, and was targeted there by the United States military, although, since he was a US citizen, the description doesn’t quite fit.

Let me be quite clear: I’m horrified by all acts of violence, and that includes the various terrorist atrocities four of the men in the list above were associated with.  And as a gay, pro-feminist, anti-authoritarian secularist I couldn’t be more opposed to the hardline theocratic rule they espoused.  (I’m similarly opposed to the Saudi regime, and for the same reasons – that, and their involvement in suppressing the Arab Spring.)  But on the narrow point of extra-judicial killings, the US protestations about the Iranian plot (alleged plot, I guess I should say, since the alleged conspirators have yet to be convicted) is the worst kind of hypocrisy.

You can’t go around violating principles like national sovereignty and the right to a fair trial yourself but then start crying foul when someone else does the same thing.  Either you subscribe to the principles of international law – in which case alleged culprits are identified and located, and an application for extradition is made, and they’re put on trial and only punished if they’re convicted – or you don’t, in which case you have to put up with things like extra-judicial killing.  What you can’t do – what you really can’t do – is insist that there’s one rule for you, and another rule for everyone else.

Or, well, I say you can’t, but that’s not true, because of course that’s exactly what the Americans are doing.  It’s all of a piece with their insistence that everyone else recognise the jurisdiction of the international criminal court while refusing to do so themselves (because of the possibility US military personnel might be indicted for war crimes).  And it’s not like those of us in the United Kingdom can claim any great moral superiority – when we were the global superpower we behaved exactly the same.  The leaders of the most powerful countries always think that their military power means that they are automatically in the right, whatever they do.

It’s still a bitter pill to swallow, though, when the United States – the country that, more than any other in history, believes itself to be the bastion of individual liberty guaranteed by law – sets about abrogating those rights on an industrial scale.  (The individuals I list above are just the tip of the iceberg; drone strikes by the US – mainly in Pakistan, but also elsewhere – are a more than weekly occurrence.)  The heady days of Obama’s early presidency seem like a distant memory now, but one of the major disappointments (although, for the record, some of us always did foresee disappointment waiting down the tracks) is the way he has almost entirely failed to reform the United States’ role in the world.  He employs different tactics to President Bush – unmanned aircraft in place of massive land armies – but the fundamental approach is still the same: the US will do whatever it likes wherever and whenever it likes, and the rest of the world can go whistle.

Think what an advert for America’s principles it would have been if Osama bin Laden had been brought to trial, and made to face justice in the full glare of the global public, rather than being assassinated in the dark!  The same is true for all of the extra-judicial killings sponsored and carried out by the US – every one of them underlines the fact that, when push comes to shove, the US doesn’t live up to the principles it proclaims.  It’s because they don’t live up to them that they have no moral authority when they complain about an Iranian plot to kill a Saudi national on US soil.  Shorn of the rhetoric about ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’, an extra-judicial killing carried out by the Americans is no different to one carried out by the Iranians (or the Israelis).

It’s a pretty obvious point, but it appears it needs to be insisted on: pronouncing someone’s guilt at a press conference – as the US has done with those terrorists (or alleged terrorists) it has gone on to eliminate by means of extra-judicial killings – is not the same as proving their guilt in a court of law.  The latter is compatible with the high principles the United States claims for itself, and the former is not.  The problem is that actions speak louder than words, and while it actively pursues the extra-judicial killing of those it has announced are guilty without bringing them to trial, America’s protestations about this latest Iranian plot look like nothing more than cant and hypocrisy.

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