Was Osama Bin Laden killed in cold blood?

Why the irregularities surrounding the al-Qaeda leader's death matter.

There he goes again: the Telegraph's torture apologist Con Coughlin, fresh from blaming the "foolhardy" Rachel Corrie for being crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer, has now pitched up to explain why irregularities surrounding Osama Bin Laden's death don't matter. In the new book No Easy Day, Mark Owen, a member of the Navy Seal team that killed the al-Qaeda leader, contradicts the official White House statement that Bin Laden may have been reaching for a gun when he was shot. "He hadn’t even prepared a defence. He had no intention of fighting," Owen writes. 

Coughlin downplays the implications of this:

There will, of course, be those among the prosperous global human rights fraternity who will argue that Bin Laden was, in effect, killed unlawfully, and that all those, from the Navy Seals involved in the operation up to President Barack Obama himself, in his capacity as America's commander-in-chief, should face prosecution for their involvement in what amounts to an extrajudicial killing. 

Well, if that's their attitude, bring it on! Given Bin Laden's well-documented involvement in acts of terrorism, they are going to have a tough time trying to find anyone to take their claim seriously.

So Coughlin's response to the suggestion that the US could have engaged in an illegal, extrajudicial killing that day in Pakistan and someone should be held accountable is that . . . er, human rights activists are "prosperous" (?), Bin Laden was a VERY BAD MAN and no one likes him anyway?

He goes on: "Bin Laden made no secret of the fact that he was waging war against the west, and as a man who personally sanctioned the mass murder of thousands of innocent people around the world, the Seal team were well within their rights not to put their own lives at risk so that Bin Laden could be taken alive." 

Which begs the question: in what way would the heavily armed Seal team have been risking their lives, faced with an unarmed man in a sleeveless T-shirt? And who needs international legal protocols when we can just ask Coughlin whether the soldiers were "well within their rights" or not?

Coughlin shrugs off the suggestion that Bin Laden's death could warrant some sympathy with the hoary old saying "He who lives by the gun, dies by the gun." A few years ago, the writer Jason Burke pointed out that "every use of force is another small victory for Bin Laden": according to Burke, Bill Clinton's bombings of Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998 and Bush's later assault on Afghanistan only strengthened al-Qaeda and helped fuel Islamist anger. Burke later wrote in the Guardian that Bin Laden's death was "undoubtedly important" but I think his earlier point still stands: after all, it's not all peace and love in the Middle East.

Al-Qaeda might not be as active today as it was once perceived to have been but there are other groups looking for an excuse to see in the west an unaccountable, conquering villain. That's one reason why international law matters: if it's a war the west is fighting, it must abide by the internationally agreed rules of warfare. Drones, assassinations and the long resistance of the US to acknowledging Guantanamo Bay detainees as prisoners of war suggest a dangerous flexibility of thinking in this respect. Coughlin's exhortations to brush aside such concerns only fuels the attitude that some countries should be able to kill "in cold blood" whenever they choose to, regardless of the consequences. Daft.

Decline and fall: the demolition of the compound where Osama Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.