Last night, President Barack Obama announced to eager audiences around the world that America’s most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, had been assassinated. Obama described bin Laden’s death by declaring that “justice has been done.” People around the globe are echoing this sentiment – that bin Laden’s death amounts to “justice”.
Looking at my twitter feed and facebook page, dozens of people are invoking the same notion of justice in bin Laden’s death. Leaders and former leaders around the world have also expressed their views:
George W Bush: “The fight against terror goes on, but tonight America has sent an unmistakable message: No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”
Tony Blair: “The operation shows those who commit acts of terror against the innocent will be brought to justice, however long it takes”
Canadian PM Stephen Harper “death of Osama bin Laden…secures a measure of justice.”
Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki: The killing of Osama Bin Laden is an “act of justice” for the victims of the 1998 bombings at the US embassy
Executive director of the 9/11 Commission, Philip Zelikkow: “We take a great deal of satisfaction in the news that Bin Laden has been brought to justice.”
Former US Vice President Dick Cheney: “bin Laden has been brought to justice…Today, the message our forces have sent is clear — if you attack the United States, we will find you and bring you to justice.”
But is bin Laden’s death really “justice”? Can killing someone ever be justice? If so, what type of justice is it? If it is just to assassinate bin Laden, who will surely go down as one of history’s most brutal antagonists, shouldn’t that mean that killing Gaddafi amounts to “justice” as well?
First, it is important to note that the legality of assassinating bin Laden rests on shaky grounds, at best. The US justifies killing members of al Qaeda by virtue of being at “war” with terrorism and thus considering al Qaeda operatives as “enemy combatants”. Nevertheless, the legality of targeting individuals with extra-judicial assassinations under international law is precarious. The US has recognized this fact in the past.
Of course, this is not to say that justice equates with what is legal or that what is legal equals what is moral. In 1964, Judith Shklar, warned us of the dangers of legalism, conflating morality with law which risked neglecting or obscuring context.
The instinct of those celebrating bin Laden’s death is that some things, or better some people, are so exceptionally bad that they make law irrelevant. The legality of killing bin Laden doesn’t really matter, it is the “right thing to do” and therefore constitutes “justice”.
Justice is more complicated than it is simple. Justice may be retributive, restorative, distributive, or procedural. For some, justice is primarily moral, for others it is legal, and for others still it is emotional. For many it is all of the above and there may be no difference between the moral, legal and emotional arguments for what is just.
If the “justice” of bin Laden’s death cannot be supported by international law, what kind of justice is it? What people appear to be invoking is a sense of physical, non-legal retributive justice: the killing of bin Laden is his due punishment. The extermination of his life avenges the lives he extinguished. And it must be reiterated, that this was always about killing bin Laden. The US special operations mission was to kill bin Laden, not to capture him.
In some ways, the sentiments of so many around the world is understandable. It seems impossible to blame those who suffered so much loss at the hands of bin Laden, in the US and across the globe (including in Afghanistan and Pakistan), for wanting revenge. It is hard to tell a relative of a victim who has only ever wanted bin Laden “caught and killed” that her desire is wrong. Interestingly, UK Opposition Leader, Ed Milliband appeared to understand this. Rather than saying that bin Laden’s death constituted an act of justice, Milliband stated that:
“For the victims of 9/11 and their families, nothing can take away the pain of what happened but this will provide an important sense of justice.”
There is little doubt that the observation by International Law Professor, Geert-Jan Knoops, holds true: “Naturally, no court in the world will tick off the Americans for this.” Nevertheless, the international community would be remiss to equate killing individuals, even individuals as evil as bin Laden, with “justice”.
The international community has come a long way in establishing systems and institutions of international justice. There is little place for extra-judicial assassinations within these structures. In the coming days, there will no doubt be much discussion as to whether killing bin Laden was necessary. There is a legitimate argument to be made that it would have been more just and beneficial to his victims and survivors had bin Laden been captured alive and brought to trial.
The chief executive of the UK Muslim organisation the Ramadhan Foundation,Mohammed Shafiq, argued the point:
“Osama Bin Laden has been responsible for preaching hatred and using terrorism to kill innocent people around the world and it would have been more suitable for him to be captured alive and put on trial in an international court for the crimes he has committed. Victims of terrorism by al-Qaeda should have had the chance to see him brought to justice.”
At the same time, as so many rejoice in the assassination of bin Laden, there is an ongoing and passionate debate about what the international community can and should do about Libyan leader Gaddafi. This has only been intensified by the recent bombing of a villa in Tripoli that, according to reports, very nearly killed Gaddafi and killed his youngest son, Saif al-Arab Gaddafi and three of his grandsons. Should Gaddafi be the target of NATO strikes? Is it permissible under international law? Is it the right thing to do?
The assassination of bin Laden is very relevant to this discussion. If killing the al Qaeda leader is permissible and just because he is exceptionally brutal and the US is fighting a “war against terrorism”, making bin Laden an “enemy combatant”, then it should hold that killing Gaddafi is just and permissible as well.
Yet, many who would describe bin Laden’s death as “justice” would not be in favour of assassinating Gaddafi. How do they square that peg? Further, the involvement of the ICC in Libya, complicates matters. As Alana Tiemessen noted last night in a discussion about the repercussions of bin Laden’s assassination on the future of Gaddafi, we “do not want to see an ICC trial and assassination put forward as moral and legal equivalents.”
These developments also have profound implications on the ‘assassination norm’. Kenneth Payne notes that recent work on the subject suggests that:
“the norm against assassination is weakening in recent times, the product of more prevalent and challenging terrorist and irregular adversaries.”
Clearly this applies to the case of bin Laden. Does his assassination signal a further weakening of this norm? Is the international community moving towards accepting that assassinating adversaries is permissible because they are particularly difficult to defeat? What does this mean for the future conduct of warfare and for developments in international justice? There is barely a sliver of doubt that killing Gaddafi would send the international community further down the road of a pro-assassination norm. Many are rightly skeptical that this is a road we should travel down.
The killing of bin Laden makes it even more vital and pressing that Western leaders clarify their position on targeting Gaddafi and articulate what the substantive difference between targeting bin Laden and targeting Gaddafi is. While it may be argued that bin Laden is indeed an “exceptional” case, a move away from international law towards special ops missions and bombings targeting particular individuals would not be justice. It would be a regression of justice.
To a remarkable extent, it has been justice which has guided the recent seismic challenges to status-quo international politics. Nowhere is this more clear than in the Middle East. But it is not time to be complacent about what justice is and how we can achieve it. It is high time that we tackle many of the “loose ends” of international justice, including the targeted killing of individuals.
In the end, it is understandable that many, especially victims and survivors of bin Laden’s brutality, view his assassination as having served justice and even constituting justice itself. Justice can be very personal. What is just and what justice requires is often subjectively constructed by personal experiences. The death of bin Laden has no doubt stirred our emotions and there is little doubt that a world without bin Laden is a better world. But calling the extra-judicial assassination of any individual, no matter how despicable, “justice” may not necessarily be a good thing and it may not necessarily serve justice.
For more on the legality, legitimacy and justice of bin Laden’s death, check out this compilation of perspectives.