Human Rights and International Law (17): License to Kill? The Morality and Legality of Targeted Killings of Terrorists

The Bush administration took the position that killing members of Al Qaeda, a terrorist group that has attacked the United States and stated that its goal is to attack again, is no different than shooting enemy soldiers on the battlefield. The Obama administration, which has continued to fire missiles from Predator drones on suspected Qaeda members in Pakistan, has taken the same view. (source)

Now it seems that the CIA went a step further and developed plans to dispatch small teams overseas to kill senior Qaeda terrorists (Predator strikes can be unreliable and tend to produce “collateral damage”). The plans remained vague and were never carried out, and Leon E. Panetta, the new C.I.A. director, canceled the program last month. Apparently, because it was too difficult to organize and probably also because no one has a clue where the terrorists really are.

In 1976, after the disclosure of C.I.A. assassination plots against Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Fidel Castro in Cuba and other foreign politicians, President Gerald R. Ford issued an executive order banning assassinations. This ban, however, does not apply to the killing of enemies in a war (obviously, because that would make war impossible). Hence the utility of branding the fight against terrorists a “War on terror”. Convincing the world that you are “at war” with the terrorists, turns them into “simple soldiers” who can be killed at will, like all soldiers in a war (except when it comes to the Geneva conventions, they’re soldiers no more…).

My personal views on targeted killing are here. According to me, whether there’s a war going on or not, targeted killings are morally justified only in certain very specific circumstances. When there is an imminent threat and no other means to stop an attack from happening, targeted killings are justified, whether or not we are “officially” at war. That would not only be morally justified, but also a legal act of self-defense under national and international law (see here for instance). The sovereignty of the country where the killing occurs shouldn’t be an obstacle.

Counterterrorism, in civil democratic regimes, must be rooted in the rule of law, morality in armed conflict, and an analysis of policy effectiveness. Targeted killings are indeed legal, under certain conditions. The decision to use targeted killing of terrorists is based on an expansive articulation of the concept of pre-emptive self defense. … According to Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, a nation state can respond to an armed attack. Targeted killing, however, is somewhat different because the state acts before the attack occurs. In addition to self-defense principles, the four critical principles of international law – alternatives, military necessity, proportionality, and collateral damage – are critical to the decision-maker’s analysis. … Implementing [these] four international law principles … requires the commander to ascertain that the “hit” is essential to national security and therefore proportional to the risk the individual presents. Furthermore, the commander must determine that any alternatives, such as capturing and detaining the individual, are not operationally possible. The commander must also seek to minimize the collateral damage – harm to innocent civilians – that is all but inevitable in such attacks. Amos N. Guiora (source)

And of course the threat must be imminent.

What is not acceptable is targeted killing without any imminent threat, or in circumstances which allow for other types of “disablement”. And neither is targeted killing as a kind of popular and photogenic “poetic justice”, because that is justice without due process. And when we have the chance to apply due process, why not show the world that we don’t just destroy criminals, even less suspected criminals or potential criminals? Extrajudicial executions aren’t OK simply because the targets are more blameworthy than opposition figures in Latin-American dictatorships. It’s not because everyone hates Osama bin Laden that we can simply kill him at will.

Terrorism and Human Rights (20): Targeted Killing of Terrorists

Are governments, or even private individuals, allowed to kill terrorists when killing them is the only way to prevent a terrorist attack? Intuitively, I would say “yes”, but only if certain conditions are met: the attack must be imminent, and no other solution is possible. In fact, these conditions limit the possibility to cases such as killing a terrorist with explosives clearly visible, and seen – from a distance – to be moving towards a target.

Most cases will be different and will make it possible for the police or bystanders to disable the terrorist in some other way, short of killing him or her, and without putting themselves at risk. I never understood why the British SAS needed a policy to target and kill IRA terrorists when they were not engaged in an imminent terrorist attack and when they could easily be arrested (see here for the story).

Now, one could reply to this with this question: why should we treat terrorists better than soldiers? In a war, soldiers can be killed almost at will. If an army spots enemy soldiers, it can kill them without violating any law of war, even if these enemy soldiers are not engaged in an imminent attack. So why can’t we kill terrorists in the same way? In fact, we should treat soldiers better, since many of them are conscripts who do not target innocent civilians. Terrorists are (normally) volunteers who target innocent civilians. That makes two aggravating circumstances.

In answer to this, we could state that terrorism isn’t a war; it’s a criminal act. Some things are allowed in a war which aren’t allowed in peacetime. And terrorism is horrible and not peaceful at all, but not everything that is horrible or a breach of peace is necessarily a war. If we are allowed to stop the crime of terrorism with targeted killings – even if the crime is not imminent – then why not normal murder as well? For example, we may know that someone is about to commit (a non-terrorist) murder, but the act is not imminent. If you accept the SAS tactic, you also have to accept the preventive killing of normal murderers.

Some go even further, and accept not only targeted killing in cases without an imminent threat, but also killing after the fact. They would accept the killing of Osama bin Laden, even if he wasn’t planning a non-imminent attack. They would justify this killing based on his past actions. (Another example is the targeted killing by Mossad of the people involved in the Munich Olympics killings, made into a movie by Spielberg). I think that’s just as unacceptable as the targeted killing SAS style. It’s punishment without due process.

Terrorism and Human Rights (19): The War on Terror and the Right to Privacy

During an apparently never-ending war on terror (what could be the end of such a war?), people are quick to believe their “liberal” governments when they tell them that a bit less privacy is a cheap price to pay for more physical security.

However, many of those governments, because they claim to be “liberal” and “democratic”, feel uneasy about this. After all, if rights are tradeable like this, if they depend on the circumstance and should be surrendered when the circumstances become more difficult, what is left of them? They become a luxury for good times, rather than a safeguard in bad times. (Another sign of this is the way in which the war on terror is eating away at other rights as well, e.g. the right not to be tortured; but let’s stick to the right to privacy here).

Because of this unease, governments claim that the right to privacy isn’t really being sacrificed. “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about”. It’s only the terrorists whose right to privacy is being limited. But in the meantime

  • DNA databases are being established for almost entire populations
  • CCTV is omnipresent
  • “data mining” is used extensively (after all, how can you determine if someone is a terrorist if you haven’t first violated his or her right to privacy?)
  • etc.

I don’t mean to imply that rights such as the right to privacy are absolute or that there can never be a good reason to limit one right for the sake of another. On the contrary. But limiting rights can only be done when there is a “clear and present danger” for other rights or for the rights of others. A vague and everlasting “war on terror” provokes limits on rights when there’s no such danger. Limiting rights becomes the normal MO of governments keen to prevent such a danger from ever occurring. And that’s unacceptable. Obviously, terrorism is a danger, but governments can only limit rights in order to prevent it when the danger is clear and present, and imminent. A general and vague fear of terrorism will not do.

Terrorism and Human Rights (15): Does Respect for Human Rights Reduce Terrorism?

Here is an extremely interesting paper by James Walsh and James Piazza. Quote:

Some hold that restricting human rights is a necessary if unfortunate cost of preventing terrorism. Others conclude that such abuses aggravate political grievances that contribute to terror. We demonstrate that theory and data support the latter position. (source)

They focus on what they call physical integrity rights, or rights which protect people from physical harm. The more a state respects these rights, the less terror attacks it suffers. It will also be less engaged in some way or other in transnational attacks.

These findings are opposed to two similar and widespread beliefs: unstable states can only guarantee security is they are authoritarian (see here), and even well-developed democracies have to limit some human rights in order to fight a terrorist threat. In the former case, the threat comes usually from within; in the latter case from abroad.

States that seek to preserve human rights and political freedoms are limited in their ability to monitor and detain terrorism suspects, are prohibited from making broad police sweeps to catch terrorist perpetrators and their sympathizers, limit coercive interrogation of suspects, and must afford suspected terrorists access to a lawyer and a public trial. Freedom of assembly and of the press allows terrorists and their supporters to publicize their grievances. … The implication is that states that protect human rights are more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. (source)

In fact, the opposite is true. Protecting human rights, and especially security or integrity rights, reduces terrorism, and violating them promotes terrorism. Terrorism is a complex phenomenon, but I think it true to say that grievances and injustices (and many of those are caused by rights violations) are important motives. Democracies and states that respect human rights supposedly give too much freedom to terrorists, allow them to organize, recruit, mobilize and plan, and make it very hard to efficiently combat terrorists (rule of law, free speech, humane treatment and torture prohibitions etc. are all said to hamper counter-terrorism). But authoritarian regimes create injustices on which terrorists feed. They also make it hard to express and redress grievances in non-violent ways,  and use ruthless methods that only make their opponents more radical, fanatic and popular.

Terrorism and Human Rights (6): The War on Terror

The War on Terror, started by the U.S. government as a response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and later joined by other governments, has had and continues to have grave consequences for the human rights of their citizens and of citizens of other countries. This is a high price for an uncertain gain.

However, before I list these consequences, I would like to make it clear that I believe, as any rational human being, that terrorism is evil, that it has to be destroyed and that democracies have a right to defend themselves against violent, anti-democratic fanatics.

I also believe that democratic governments should be especially vigilant because the freedoms that they are elected to protect, offer opportunities for those who hate freedom, opportunities that do not exist in other political systems. Potential terrorists find it relatively easy to enter a democracy and operate in it. A democracy is a very vulnerable form of government because of the freedom it gives to everyone, even those who don’t mean well.

The freedoms of a democracy can be and are abused, but this, it seems, has frightened democratic governments to such an extent that they have decided to limit these freedoms up to the point that they are in danger of abandoning their values, and hence doing the work of the terrorists for them. It can be acceptable to limit certain rights for the protection of other rights, but the right to security has taken on an absolute priority, at the expense of all other rights. There is no reasonable balance anymore. Some have called the war on terror a “war on freedom” (source).

1. Civil liberties

Governments try to defend their countries against terrorist attacks by limiting civil liberties in their territories.

  • The right to privacy has been limited: CCTV has become ubiquitous, DNA databases have been created, eavesdropping and wiretapping have been legalized etc.
  • “No-fly-lists” have come into force, limiting the freedom of movement of even those who have written critically of the government or attended peace-protests.
  • Hate speech laws have been voted to silence jihadist hate preachers, silencing others at the same time.
  • “Racial profiling” by the police has turned innocent people into possible suspects, often inverting the burden of proof.
  • Habeas corpus has been limited, periods of detention without charge extended, sometimes indefinitely (for “enemy combatants”).

However, in spite of all this, the constraints on a government’s actions within its territory are sometimes still considered to be inhibiting:

  • “Extraordinary rendition” has been covertly practiced, allowing suspects to be tortured outside of the territory by professional torturers in other countries.
  • Extra-territorial prisons have been created, in Guantanamo, but probably elsewhere as well, where suspects can be tortured or held indefinitely and where the Geneva Conventions supposedly don’t apply.

2. Mentalities

The war on terror has also changed people’s minds and attitudes.

  • The media have started to censor themselves. Solidarity with the government at war and the commander-in-chief, or the fear of being perceived as unpatriotic, appeasers, “useful idiots” or even open allies of the enemy has turned them into uncritical supporters of the war.
  • Citizens have turned on Islam and Muslims. Xenophobia and more specifically islamophobia have undermined the ideals of tolerance and multiculturalism, and have in certain cases even led to hate crimes against Muslims.
  • A “culture of fear” has been created by the terrorist but also nurtured by irresponsible western politicians. This fear has damaged democracy. Not only have the media relinquished their traditional role as watchdogs. Politicians as well, and especially incumbents, have abused the fear of terrorism to harness support. Alert levels seem to go up just before elections.

3. Preemptive war

The US government has elaborated and implemented the strategy of preemptive war, a war

waged in an attempt to repel or defeat a perceived inevitable offensive or invasion, or to gain a strategic advantage in an impending (allegedly unavoidable) war. (source)

The Iraq war was deemed a preemptive war because Iraq was allegedly about to attack the US with weapons of mass destruction, or supply these weapons to terrorists. Whatever the merits of the case against Iraq – and with the passing of time these seem to become weaker and weaker – the war has been framed, correctly or not, as a necessary stage in the ongoing war on terror. It has, however, resulted in massive numbers of casualties on both sides. The human rights violations caused by the war stand in no relation to the violations caused by terrorism or the violations that could have been caused by Saddam.

In any case, you can’t solve the problem of terrorism by violent means only. Terrorism has causes, and there will be terrorism as long as these causes exist. (Mind you, I don’t want to excuse or justify terrorism).

4. Counter-productive

It is now widely believed, even in US government circles, that the war on terror is counter-productive. Especially the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the torture in Abu Ghraib and the detentions in Guantanamo have produced a backlash and have increased rather than reduced the terror threat. The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate issued the following among its “key judgments”:

The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement. (source)

The war on terror has created and exacerbated resentment, hatred of the West and anti-americanism. And with anti-americanism often comes hatred of democracy and freedom and Islamic radicalization. Apart from the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, there is no evidence that any of the strategies in the war on terror has done any good (source).

5. Misnomer

There is something fishy about the concept of a “war on terrorism”. This “war” is in fact no such thing. It is in essence crime prevention and law enforcement. There is no well-defined enemy. Anyone can at any time become an enemy. For this reason, there is no conceivable end to the war. And if you claim to wage a war on terrorism, you might as well claim to wage a war on carpet bombing. Both are tactics or strategies, not something you wage war against.

If you insist on calling anti-terrorist actions a war, then you give too much credit to the riffraff you’re opposing. Rather than deranged criminals they can call themselves soldiers. And soldiers defend something. You legitimize them. You turn a crime into a two-sided struggle in which each side defends its positions. This in turn leads to the view that the war on terror is a war of the West against the rest, bringing back images of colonialism, imperialism and the crusades, again legitimizing the terrorists, helping to consolidate their often internally opposed forces, and making them honorable in the eyes of ordinary citizens outside of the West.

I can understand that the concept of a “war on terrorism” is useful for the executives in the West, because an executive that is at war has more powers, less oversight, more popular support and less criticism, but it’s a meaningless and dangerous concept. Let’s give it up.

Limiting Free Speech (3): Hate Speech

Hate speech (or antilocution, or fighting words) is speech that incites other people to hate a certain group in society defined by common characteristics (race, gender, religion etc.). It usually also incites to commit violence and discrimination based on hatred.

The most famous case is that of the Danish Muhammad cartoons. These cartoons led to worldwide protest and expressions of anger and hate, not only against the cartoonists in question, their newspaper or their country, but against liberals and democrats in general.

However, hate speech is by no means an exclusively Muslim matter. It can be found everywhere where there is hate: it can be racist, anti-gay, islamophobe, etc. It can also be framed in anti-terrorist language: many western countries have initiated legislation outlawing hate speech that is part of Muslim mobilization of terrorists (in militant mosques for example).

Given the importance of freedom of expression, it is not universally accepted that hate speech can be legally prohibited. There is of course article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which outlaws hate speech:

Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

However, contrary to hate crimes, such as attack on gays or muslims or writers/movie makers/cartoonists critical of Islam etc., the basic rule should be that speech as such is not a crime, even speech expressing or inciting hatred, violence or discrimination. Speech is protected by the right to free speech.

However, this right, like many human rights, is not absolute and can be limited when it endangers other human rights (like the right to life and bodily integrity, the right not to suffer discrimination etc.). The general defense of hateful speech has therefore some exceptions. It’s a thin line between hateful words and hateful actions. Impressionable people can be led to violent crimes by hate speech. Hate is taught. The example of the Muhammad cartoons protests is again telling in this respect. Many protesters were encouraged by some Muslim leaders to commit acts of violence.

But much depends on the circumstances, the context and the manner of speech. Islamophobia in front of a crowded mosque is obviously not the same thing as islamophobia in an obscure publication. Examples of speech, in the wider sense of the word, such as hanging a noose in a tree in the front yard of the house of an African-American family, or spraying graffiti on someone’s car or house, are more of a problem than posting a picture of a Koran in the toilet on a blog or a website. The first examples are clearly intimidation and can force people to sell their houses and move somewhere else. This has human rights implications (freedom of residence and property rights), which the latter examples don’t have (it’s difficult to argue that a photo of the Koran in a toilet, although undoubtedly an expression of hatred, harms anyone’s freedom of religion).

When speech has implications for the rights of some people, it is legitimate to consider limiting this speech, according to the rules set out in the introductory post of this series.

An important distinction here: all this is about hate, not about speech that is merely offensive, insulting, ridiculing etc. That’s the topic of another post. The distinction, however, can be blurred. What is hateful and what is merely offensive is a matter of personal conviction, it differs between groups and it changes over time. Some groups may be more sensitive than others. If one decides to legislate the matter, this can complicate things.

Moreover, what to someone can be seen as hate – for example homophobia – may be a central tenet of someone else’s religion and therefore protected by the freedom of religion. However, the freedom of religion is not absolute either.

And finally, some examples of speech that were once considered to be hateful – such as “nigger” – have been reclaimed by the groups that were previously targeted, and are sometimes even used as a badge of pride.

Another distinction: it is perhaps possible to imagine hate speech that is not directly or indirectly inciting violence and/or discrimination. Obviously, this kind of hate speech is less dangerous. However, like derogatory speech or offensive speech it does create a problem. It perpetuates negative stereotypes, devalues collective identities, deepens social cleavages and conflicts, makes it more difficult for the community to accept new identities, and it makes debate more difficult. So it makes it more difficult to create and uphold a tolerant, diverse society in which there can be civilized debate and discussion leading to better knowledge.

However, is this reason enough for a legal prohibition on hate speech? I don’t think so. Is it reason enough to combat hate speech with other means? Sure. The remedy for harmful speech is not necessarily prohibition but counter-speech, and sometimes it is best to just ignore some kinds of speech. Engaging the hate mongers, let alone prosecuting them, gives them legitimacy, publicity, and under-dog or victim status.