Do Targeted Killings by the US Violate International Law?

Post by Randall Ryder

The White House recently took the unusual, and perhaps unprecedented, step of authorizing the targeted killing of US citizen with Al Qaeda ties. The citizen is believed to be somewhere in the Arabian peninsula. Given the international nature of such action, does it violate international law?

The citizen is an alleged radical Muslim cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki. Alwaki is believed to be recruiting terrorists in Arabian Peninsula. The recruits are supposedly for attacks against the United States and American citizens abroad. 

Officials indicate this type of approval is very unusual, if not unprecedented. Under President Bush, there were no known targeted killings. Awlaki, however, is considered to be extremely dangerous because of his ability to recruit other terrorists. An official said "The danger Awlaki poses to this country is no longer confined to words . . . " The Director of National Intelligence, in a more generalized statement, also said that the US does take direct action against terrorists at certain times, but always gets specific permission to do so. 

International law appears to support the stance of the US government. Generally speaking, international law allows the use of lethal force against individuals and groups who pose an imminent threat against a country. After September 11, 2001, Congress specifically authorized the use of military force against Al Qaeda. 

Both the US military and the CIA maintain lists of Al Qaeda operatives that are authorized to be captured or killed. It is unclear, however, who conducts oversight on the lists. For Alwaki, his inclusion had to be approved by the National Security Council because he is a US citizen. 

While international law may implicitly sanction the practice, there is still some cause for concern. Who conduct oversight on the lists? Lists of individuals to capture is one thing, but lists of individuals who can be killed is different. It can be presumed a majority of the individuals are not on US soil, and any attempt to kill these individuals takes place on foreign soil. While these individuals may pose a great threat to the US, any attempt by the US to kill them on foreign soil places foreign innocent civilians at risk. At the same time, these individuals are unlikely to ever set foot on American soil, and such action theoretically has to occur in other countries.

There is, unfortunately, no simple solution. That aside, this raises some difficult moral and ethical issues. What do you think?

U.S. Approves Targeted Killing of American Cleric | The New York Times

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