Extrajudicial killing and the United States

By Saiful Saleem -

Starting in November 2002 with the killing of 6 al-Qaeda members traveling in a car struck by a missile from an unmanned drone, the United States began to adopt a policy of targeted extrajudicial killing in the War on Terror. [i]

And since then, the extrajudicial killings have multiplied, culminating in the high profile killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan on the first of May 2011 and the killing of two American citizens in Yemen, Anwar Awlaki and Samir Khan. [ii]

Two weeks after the killing of Awlaki, his son was also the subject of an extrajudicial killing after a strike had been authorized by the Obama administration. [iii] In most of the cases of extrajudicial killings in the War on Terror, there had not been much effort made to apprehend any of the targets.

In fact, many of the targets did not even have a single charge against them. Rather, once they had been identified as a terrorist, they were put on a hit list.It must also be noted that these killings should be considered political assassinations seeing that the targets were generally neither in a field of battle nor involved in combat at the time of death. In most of these cases there has been no due process and no real evidence of guilt provided.

Even in the case of Osama bin Laden, the United States never provided a shred of evidence of his involvement in September 11. Up till his death, his place on the Federal Bureau of Investigations Top Fugitives list was justified by previous charges against him. In the case of Awlaki it is much worse since he never had any charges brought against him. In fact, the Obama administration has never provided evidence of his involvement in al-Qaeda plots.

America’s extrajudicial killings pose a range of problems not only to international human rights standards, but also to the international system itself. If the United States can assassinate individuals without any judicial backing in any country in the world, then what is to stop other countries from following suit?

Jonathan Hafetz, a professor at Seton Hall Law School, writes that the American targeted killing policy “encourages other states to expand their counter-terrorism operations in similar ways - ways that might seem less attractive when the same principles are invoked in different contexts. The United States, for example, might feel differently if Russia were to target Chechen rebels in Georgia, or if India were to target Pakistani-backed forces in Kashmir.” [iv]

Simply put in continuing with this policy, the United States, as the world’s superpower, is setting a very dangerous precedent for the rest of the world. If other nations follow suit, there is a danger that the global system might fall into chaos with borders, treaties and laws losing importance and respect.

This policy is also a violation of international law.

Article 3 of the 4th Geneva Convention specifically prohibits “the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court”. [v] Similarly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights both prohibit executions without trial and a judicial process.

Furthermore in 2004, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions presented a report to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, finding that “empowering governments to identify and kill “known terrorists” places no verifiable obligation upon them to demonstrate in any way that those against whom lethal force is used are indeed terrorists, or to demonstrate that every other alternative had been exhausted.” The report concluded that the practice of extrajudicial killing, even in the case of terrorists, makes a mockery of accountability mechanisms under human rights law. [vi]

The worst thing about the use of extrajudicial killing by the United States in the context of the War on Terror is that the guidelines seem to be expanding, with the President having more discretion than ever in who he decided to brand a terrorist and kill. Allowing the President the license to kill will only prove to be a very dangerous precedent.


i. Dworkin, Anthony. "The Yemen Strike: The War on Terrorism Goes Global." Crimes of War Project, November 14, 2002. 
http://www.mafhoum.com/press4/122P7.htm (accessed May 9, 2012).

ii. "Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki killed in Yemen." BBC, September 30, 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15121879 (accessed May 10, 2012).

iii. Flinn, Peter, and Greg Miller. "Anwar al-Awlaki’s family speaks out against his son’s death in airstrike."Washington Post, October 18, 2011. 
http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/anwar-al-awlakis-family-speaks-out-against-his-sons-deaths/2011/10/17/gIQA8kFssL_story_1.html (accessed May 10, 2012).

iv. Hafetz, Jonathan. "Targeted killing and the 'War on Terror' ." Al Jazeera, October 19, 2011. http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2011/10/2011101872910456159.html (accessed May 10, 2012).

v. "Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War" Diplomatic Conference of Geneva of 1949, August 12, 1949. 

vi. Alston, Philip. "Civil and Political Rights, including the question of disappearances and summary executions." Commission on Human Rights. December 22, 2004.
http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G05/101/34/PDF/G0510134.pdf?OpenElement (accessed May 10, 2012)