2C: the FCNL Staff Blog

International law and the killing of Osama bin Laden

Posted on 05/06/2011 @ 02:30 PM

Tags: Middle East , War Is Not the Answer, Afghanistan

Jonathan Evans

See FCNL's response to the death of Osama bin Laden and suggested actions .

When I first heard President Obama’s announcement that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a U.S. military operation inside Pakistan, I immediately began to wonder about the relationship between international law and the U.S. operation. Questions began to arise in my mind. Questions such as: Did the U.S. have approval from the Pakistani government for the operation? Did the Pakistani military or intelligence agencies participate in the operation? How will this affect U.S. relations with the governments and the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan? And, ultimately, has the U.S. violated international law? I know that I was not alone in my questioning.

In myblog post earlier this week, I focused primarily on other compelling aspects and implications of the breaking news, particularly why I couldn't celebrate the killing. I didn’t dwell much in that post about the legal aspects of the operation, in part because I wanted to wait and not rush to judgment.

In the intervening days, more details about the operation have been reported. We now know that the Government of Pakistan was not involved in the U.S. operation, that no prior approval was sought from Pakistani officials, and, furthermore, that the Pakistan government was not given prior notification of the highly-sensitive operation. We also now know, contrary to initial reports, that bin Laden was not armed at the time he was killed.

In other words, this was a unilateral action by the United States launched from Afghanistan into Pakistan. What then are the implications under international law?

Mary Ellen O’Connell, professor of international dispute resolution at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, offers an analysis in a piece published on Wednesday in Foreign Policy.

FCNL has known Professor O’Connell and respected her views for many years. 2C Blog readers may recall that Joe Volk interviewed her last fall about the use of drones and targeted killing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That interview can be found in Joe’s November 17, 2010 blog post.

In the wake of the bin Laden killing and the continuing U.S. drone attacks along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, both pieces are worth a read.


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