Rule of Law or Law of the Jungle?
Image Credit: US Embassy New Zealand

Rule of Law or Law of the Jungle?


The execution of Osama bin Laden on May 1 by a team of US Navy Seals sends a brutal message to the world that the extermination of the United States’ enemies takes precedence over any consideration of morality or international law. For daring to attack the United States, al-Qaeda’s founder had to be hunted down and exterminated, however long it took and at whatever the cost. Might is right.

Other governments will note the example set by the United States—an example that might also be copied by non-state actors, and even by aggrieved citizens. After all, Americans aren’t alone in having national interests, legitimate grievances and enemies they wish to bury. Others, too, can claim the right of self-defence, overriding legal or ethical constraints.  

Israel has been doing so for decades. As a matter of deliberate policy, it has carried out numerous extra-judicial killings of its political enemies, and appears to have no qualms about violating the sovereignty of other countries. In a recent blog, US lawyer John Whitbeck reports that Gen. Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli chief of staff known for his tough tactics, has claimed the credit for inspiring the US assassination strategy. Mofaz is now chairman of the Knesset’s foreign affairs committee.

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If states can resort to terrorism with impunity in order to kill their enemies, political leaders must be prepared to face the same rough ‘justice’ at the hands of the followers, friends or relatives of their victims. What if a hit team of Iraqi Baathists, for example, seeking to avenge the wanton destruction of their party, their army and their country, were to track down the orchestrators of the Iraq War? Would that be terrorism or justice? What if a Pashtun tribal leader were to decide that the director of the CIA should be targeted for the drone attacks that have killed hundreds, if not thousands, of civilians in the tribal areas of Pakistan? Would that be terrorism or justice?

Would the United States not have been better served had it upheld the rule of law in Abbottabad rather than resorting to the law of the jungle?

Terrible and tragic as was the fate of the 3,000 victims of 9/11, they aren’t the only ones to be mourned. In seeking to punish bin Laden’s al-Qaeda for its attack on America’s heartland, the United States waged wars on Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan—wars that are thought to have caused, by some estimates, about a million deaths, not to mention the wounded and the displaced, and all those whose lives have been shattered by the massive disturbance and material destruction of these conflicts. The dead from these misguided wars cry out for vengeance from the grave. Whether they are Iraqis, Afghans or Pakistanis, they, too, are mourned.

Just as the United States’ alleged torture of ‘unlawful combatants’ in Iraq and elsewhere gave a blank cheque to Arab tyrants and others to torture their own citizens, so the assassination of America’s number one enemy will encourage others to resort to the same lawless methods.

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