Bin Laden: No Justice! Illegal! Assassination! Torture!

Geoffrey Robertson QC calls legal basis of bin laden killing an “absurdity” but a former British ambassador with knowledge of the Balkans says he’s missing all the important points.

International Criminal Court in the Hague
Charles Crawford
On 3 May 2011 11:31

Well, that didn’t take long. Scarcely have the ripples of Osama Bin Laden’s undeservedly dignified final splash subsided than the supposedly moral clamour starts. No justice! Illegal! Assassination! Torture!

The Independent today has Geoffrey Robertson QC asserting the “absurdity” of any claim that justice has been done by his abrupt death – better a formal legal process if at all possible: "[T]he Security Council could have set up an ad hoc tribunal in The Hague, with international judges (including Muslim jurists), to provide a fair trial and a reasoned verdict.

"This would have been the best way of de-mystifying this man, debunking his cause and de-brainwashing his followers. In the dock he would have been reduced in stature – never more remembered as the tall, soulful figure on the mountain, but as a hateful and hate-filled old man, screaming from the dock or lying from the witness box".

I disagree. The International Tribunal set up for former Yugoslavia war crimes has ended up costing taxpayers some £3 million per day. Milosevic, Seselj and other Balkan war crimes indictees have found myriad ways to drag out and denounce the process. Even if they have ended looking like hateful extremists to some QCs, in the eyes of their supporters their status has gone up – once again the ideology of eternal victimhood wins out.

Some crimes are so extreme that ordinary or even extraordinary legal processes surely aren’t enough. Should the Americans have given Osama the chance to use all Western legal rights and human decency to defend himself after he had striven to obliterate those very rights and that decency?

Many people round the world, friends and foes of democracy alike, would conclude that that would be a sign not of civilisational strength but of existential weakness.

Then the sly questions from the hosts on BBC Radio Five Live this morning. Was the US action legal, or was it an ‘assassination’? One caller denounced the unilateralism of the US move into Pakistan, making this grotesque comparison: how would we like it if Pakistan raided a remote cottage in the Lake District?!”

What? Well, if the UK for years had been harbouring in a massive compound a mere few hundred yards from the main SAS training camp a terrorist who had killed 2,000 people in Islamabad, and in the face of international law the British government had shown itself unable or unwilling to sort out those in MI6 and the Army who were protecting this villain, we’d perhaps gloomily have to conclude that unilateral action by Pakistan to deal with the problem had served us damn’ well right.

As for the new ‘assassination’ meme, history has moved on since September 1683 when Poland’s King Jan Sobieski III in person led a huge charge of 3,000 Polish heavy lancers straight at the tent of the leader of the vast Ottoman army besieging Vienna and achieved a startling victory.

In those days it was a sign of honour for leaders personally to lead battles. Now it is left to young men with the best available high-tech weaponry to risk their lives while their leaders nervously listen far away to live radio reports of their courage in action.

The hard fact is that international law has not caught up with the fact that the more accurate modern weapons become (ie. the chances of civilian casualties plummet), the more any individual operation from drones or even normal military units looks like a targeted if not personalized killing.

If one thing is moral it surely is going directly after the leaders whose wicked policies lead to thousands of deaths. It was highly unedifying to see hundreds of luckless Serbian squaddies in Serbia and Kosovo being blown to pieces by NATO aircraft in 1998, while prissy Western lawyers ruled out targeting Slobodan Milosevic himself.

Back in Libya we intervened to stop Gaddafi killing civilians. Gaddafi is still killing civilians – how many ordinary civilians have died precisely because we did not behead the regime immediately as a sign of overwhelming resolve? Not much ‘justice’ there either.

In the Bin Laden case the US SEALs went after a known merciless terrorist whose own videos had shown himself boasting in army-style camouflage clothes with an assault rifle. The people round him did not surrender, and as far as we know Bin Laden did not do so either. So down he deservedly went as an enemy combatant – maybe indeed he did get some satisfaction from knowing that was how it would end, as he heard the SEALs crashing their way up to him through the building.

Finally, torture.

Prime Minister David Cameron this morning on BBC Radio 5 Live parked himself on an unwise policy position on this issue, namely that one of the main reasons for opposing torture is that information obtained from torture is ‘unreliable’. This is exactly wrong: people commit torture precisely because the information thereby obtained can be not only reliable but vital.

It is likely to become clear (enough) that a key part of the evidence trail leading to Bin Laden did indeed come from "enhanced interrogation" techniques. Some reports are making the good point that the information given by different suspects was so unambiguous in pointing away from one possible Bin Laden courier that it made the Americans look more closely at that person.

In other words, the information given was indeed ‘unreliable’ and intended to be so by the tough suspects who were desperate to lead their captors away from the right trail – but the very pattern of unreliable information itself gave new clues, which in the end proved decisive.

In any case, it makes no rhetorical or policy sense in effect to accept that anything which compels a suspect to give information against his/her will ipso facto equals ‘torture’.

That concedes too much ground to those who want to use our own legal order against us, by setting impossibly high standards and making prosecutions of the most dangerous suspects in some cases next to impossible.

It would have been much better if the Prime Minister had said something like the following:

-- Torture is wrong and unacceptable

-- But let’s not fall into the trap of saying that any disagreeable or even hard interrogation technique is "torture" – we are up against incredibly dangerous people trained in surviving normal interrogation techniques

-- Different countries have their interrogation methods – and their boundaries on what is or is not "torture". We do differ from the Americans here. That won’t change.

-- Let’s face facts: torture and other human rights abuses will not be eradicated overnight. If every country on earth today decided to use only US interrogation techniques and adopted the legal framework and checks and balances governing their use, human rights around the world would be hugely improved

-- And if you want to talk about torture, let’s remember the families of the 9/11 massacre in New York and the July 7 attacks in London, who are to be tortured every day for the rest of their lives by the memories of their lost loved ones

These issues and more immediately play into US domestic politics. Before President Obama was elected the elite Joint Special Operations Command troops used by him to carry out this brilliant mission were noisily denounced by leading US liberals as the Bush/Cheney ‘executive assassination ring’.

We can expect to be deafened by the silence from his supporters now that Obama himself has used these soldiers and relied on some grubby Bush/Cheney-era intelligence to achieve this deserved political success.

But Obama must tread carefully. His core argument that he is the moral and political Anti-Bush has just fallen away.

Charles Crawford was British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw. He is now a private consultant and

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