Analysis and views on the issues of the day
Bin Laden's killing without process undermines rule of law


Greg Barns

The killing of Osama Bin Laden provides a disturbing reminder that the West’s rhetoric on the universality of human rights and the rule of law is easily sacrificed at the altar of expediency.

The killing of Bin Laden was not done by the Americans in the heat of battle, or as an act of self defence. Instead he was killed in a well executed raid by American military and security personnel.

There was a clear alternative to killing Bin Laden available to the Americans and that would have been to capture him, interrogate him and then, if there were sufficient evidence charge him with any number of serious offences. Bin Laden could then have been tried according to law and given all the resources that every human being is entitled to in defending themselves against criminal charges.

In approving the targeted killing or assassination of Bin Laden by the US, political leaders such as this country’s Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are essentially saying that the Geneva Conventions and international human rights instruments can be abandoned depending on the political circumstances.

The Geneva Conventions which govern armed conflict explicitly note that international humanitarian law applies to such conflicts. This means countries can’t go around killing people simply because they think they are a terrorist. Due process has to be applied to such people. This is why Amnesty International objected to the 2005 killing by the CIA of Haitham al-Yemeni, an alleged terror leader in Pakistan in 2005. Amnesty argued that the Americans had “carried out an extrajudicial execution, in violation of international law.” And that the US and Pakistan “should have cooperated to arrest Haitham al-Yemeni rather than kill him.”

The same analysis can be applied to the Bin Laden killing. It is no excuse to say that there is something special about Bin Laden – that he symbolised 9/11 and therefore he has no human rights at all.

Clive Williams, a counter terrorism expert writes in today’s Fairfax media that to give Bin Laden a trial would have been to give him a platform for propaganda, and that this ‘fact’ justifies his killing. This argument is deeply flawed. The experience of tribunals and courts in dealing with alleged war criminals and those charged with terrorist acts and human rights violations has been to the contrary. Courts are in control of proceedings and when defendants seek to use these fora for political or ideological purposes they are generally given short shrift. Just ask former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

Bin Laden’s death will not end terrorist activity – it has been with us for many centuries and will be for many more. But what it does do is undermine the universality of the rule of law and human rights. Everyone, yes everyone, has the right to a fair trial and to be treated with dignity and respect. When you torture your enemy or kill them cold bloodedly you simply dehumanise the world you live in.

There should be no mindless ranting and chest beating about Bin Laden’s death but soul searching about how easily lofty and fundamentally important principles of humanity and fairness are cast aside when there is a vote in it or when primal vengeance is given its head by our leaders.
Greg Barns is a barrister and former Liberal Party advisor.Comments (522)

Ture Sjolander :

  • 04 May 2011 10:44:25pm

    The picture, photograph of bin Laden as dead we are waiting for is less interesting right now. What we really would like to see is all the material collected in bin Laden's home. All this stuff should be distributed unedited to the world by a new Manning or Assange.
    All authentic documents including electronic documents to photographs.
    It could also reveal if Pakistan was involved in bin Ladens residence in Pakistan.
    The material could be so sensitive so it could create a nuclear war between USA and Pakistan.
    If it is not presented to the rest of the world USA can practice black mail against Pakistan and others.
    All this different versions we have got now day by day from US is really dodgy business.

    • Pauli C :

      04 May 2011 9:39:24pm

      there is no solid evidence putting OBL with the 9/11 event. The FBI did not put out a warrant for that crime....The 9/11 commission did not listen to any of the first responders witness...he is a puppet for the corporate fascist US government..any of you Americans who are jumping up and down celebrating are seriously blind for in the name of chasing that guy around the mountains for ten years your elitist government has destroyed your are now fully enchanted by the security of the mantra "war is peace"... for them "war is profit"...and you are their willing slaves..The rule of law is no more...only applying when expedient if annoying is quickly swept away.....The 9/11 crime scene was the biggest ever in many of you die hard patriots rejoicing in his death know what the executive orders were regarding the crime scene.......have any of you die hards heard the testimony of any first responders who were not allowed to give witness in the is the little lies you have to hide the big ones hide due to sheer public disbelief...

        • Ture Sjolander :

          05 May 2011 11:12:24am

          OBL publicly categorically denied any involvement in the 9/11 few days after. Every decent person would have that statement in our mega memory no matter what the news media have said thereafter.

            • Ronk :

              05 May 2011 1:56:16pm

              No actually he publicly boasted that he had ordered it, not once but in several separate authenticated broadcasts.

          • George :

            05 May 2011 11:36:00am

            OBL & al-Qa'eda group admitted to it, and took credit for it

              • Ture Sjolander :

                05 May 2011 5:28:53pm

                Only time shall tell, as well as date.
                Saddam was chosen in desperation told us all another story.


          • Ture Sjolander :

            03 May 2011 5:54:17pm

            "The evil" is not the worst thing in our world. The worst thing is the good allowing the evil to take place.

            3 days 3 "news".
            Before even law can be applied in this prefabricated string of international co-ordinated news media fabrications starting with the Windsors, The Vatican and now the White House one need to see more than electronically animated entertainments.
            One big lie never comes alone it often comes in Three, is an old say.

            •       TURE  SJOLANDER
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