Law, justice and the death of Osama Bin Laden

Does it matter if the killing was against the law?

There was probably no lawful basis for the killing of Osama Bin Laden, but for many that does not really matter.

Sometimes, one can perhaps contend, there may be justice without a legal basis or in breach of due process.

And, in any case, even the sensitive souls concerned with any legalistic irregularities are unlikely to get too vexed over this particular death.

Nonetheless, the Orwell Prize shortlisted Heresy Corner blog today asks when is an execution not an execution. He makes the point that, on the basis of a EU Commission statement and the known circumstances of the death, there appears to have been an extra-judicial execution. He concludes:

So it was a punishment for a crime after all. And the killing of a specified individual, ordered and carried out by the state as punishment for a criminal act is, in most normal definitions of the term, an "execution". What the EU is effectively saying, then, is that capital punishment is only acceptable if it is done on the basis of secret orders, issued by a politician, with no trial and no possibility of appeal. Hmm.

I do not think that we have sufficient information to form even a preliminary view as to either the circumstances of the death or the true intentions of those who effected it. The death may have been intentional, or the result of resistance, or caused by incompetence. We simply do not yet know.

There is also no particular reason to rely on a statement of the EU Commission in characterising the nature of the death. All the available information is so far only indicative; it is too early to say anything about this death with certainty.

However, there is the wider point of the legal context for a politician ordering any such killing, whether as an assassination or an "execution".

On the face of it, there is no legal basis for an American President to order the killing of anyone. Furthermore, such a killing would presumably be contrary to the local law of where the killing takes place and possibly even the public law of the United States, as well as in breach of international instruments (to the extent that they have any practical legal effect).

Such a killing would therefore be unlawful (in not having a legal basis for the power exercised) and illegal (in being in breach of applicable laws).

But if one is to take the rule of law and due process seriously, then it is at the margins where they matter most: where the victim is deemed to "deserve it". If the rule of law and due process are posited as absolutes, then ordering such a killing is necessarily wrong at all times and in all circumstances.

Alternatively, if the rule of law and due process only have a qualified status, and so (somehow) can be disregarded in exceptional situations, then the difficult question is where one draws the line.

And, in terms of international affairs, it also becomes unclear exactly what are the values and norms which the West are seeking to defend when an assassination or "execution" is ordered: it is rather absurd to defend the rule of law and due process by undermining them.

The death of Osama Bin Laden is undoubtedly a welcome event, even if it was perhaps an unlawful one. There is a sense that it was a just outcome, even if there had not been any due process. Nonetheless, if the death was unlawfully ordered, there remains at least the conceptual and ethical problem identified on Heresy Corner.

But it is not a problem which many of us will lose sleep over tonight.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and co-judge of the 2011 Orwell Prize for blogging.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.