Thursday, May 05, 2011

Death of a Terrorist and Unanswered Questions


The Guardian, Thursday 5 May 2011

Your correspondents have rightly been critical of the questionable legality of American action against Bin Laden and Nato attempts to assassinate Colonel Gaddafi (Osama bin Laden and wild-west justice, 3 May). Some 65 years ago US prosecutors and politicians led the way in rejecting the idea of simply identifying and then executing Nazi leaders when they fell into allied hands. Justice Robert Jackson insisted that if the western allies wanted to hold the moral high ground they had to be seen to behave differently from the defeated axis states. The Nuremberg trials gave an opportunity through due legal process for the victor states to demonstrate that the rule of law had to be applied even to the most lawless acts.

How the wheel of history has turned? Instead we have extra-legal murder squads, concentration camps, torture of suspects, wilful disregard for legal sovereignty. No one will shed tears for Bin Laden or for Gaddafi, but if the rule of law was good enough for the Nazi leadership, responsible for the greatest mass murders in history, it must be good enough for our current conflicts. It is time to put an end to the idea that lynch law is a legitimate form of international justice and to try to base Obama's limp claim that "justice" has been done on a restoration of international behaviour that respects those rules and sets aside the unconvincing assertion that the western killing is the archway to democracy. Robert Jackson would be turning in his grave.

Professor Richard Overy


• Although the killing of Mr Bin Laden appears to have been received positively in the west (Cheers, tears and beers..., 3 May), I for one struggle to understand on what basis the US can attack and kill a person in another sovereign state.

Bin Laden has not been convicted in any court, other than the court of public opinion. The US is not at war with Pakistan. As far as I am aware a state cannot declare war on an individual. What possible legal basis, other than "might is right", does the US have to kill this man, without even the cover of acquiescence by that state in such a killing? Can we expect Black Hawks to descend on the home counties in search of Julian Assange, I wonder? The US needs to provide a legal basis for this action or be held to account.

David Enright

Solicitor, St Albans, Hertfordshire

• Two things about the connection between waterboarding and the killing of Osama bin Laden (Report, 3 May). First, it is not essential to the case against torture that torture is ineffective; the case against torture is that it is prohibited legally and morally as an abomination, whether it yields useful information or not. Second, even if former vice-president Dick Cheney and Professor John Yoo are right about the effectiveness of waterboarding in this instance, their claim should be understood for what it is: that the unlawful use of torture helped facilitate the unlawful use of death squads. It is no justification for the commission of one crime (torture) that it helps facilitate the commission of another crime (assassination), even when those crimes are committed against people who are themselves dangerous criminals.

Jeremy Waldron

Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, All Souls College, Oxford

• So after 10 years US special forces finally killed Osama bin Laden. The evil genius is dead! He was a genius for taking questions to the empire's military, political and economic heart, but an evil one for the murderous methods he asked them. But as you cheer, please tell us one thing. We are malnourished Indian children, Palestinians corralled in Gaza, Bangladeshis sandwiched between Himalayan floods and inexorably rising sea, HIV-positive Kenyans with no access to retrovirals … we are all those clinging to the underbelly of this wickedly wonderful world system. How do we get answers to the questions of economic, social and environmental justice that Bin Laden so inappropriately asked?

Dr Jeph Mathias

Landour community hospital, India

• Now retribution has been exacted and the US has taken its "pound of flesh", it is time to sit down and talk (Brain food, 3 May). Even the British managed it with the IRA. And if the world has learned one thing over the last 15 years, it is that al-Qaida hardliners are so hacked off they are prepared to strap bombs to themselves and kill anyone.

So why doesn't the west do something about the legitimate issues that induce Islamic fundamentalism? Like remove western airbases from Saudi Arabia? Like initiate a Middle Eastern peace talk mechanism involving Hamas, without kowtowing to the US Israeli lobby? It would be much cheaper – in both human and financial terms – than continuing to fight a losing global battle. If we engage and negotiate – fairly and unilaterally – there is no "war on terror".

Nick Hopewell-Smith

Stradbroke, Suffolk


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