International Law

Disclosure that Bin Laden Was Unarmed Has Critics Claiming a Violation of International Law

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The White House has retreated from initial claims that Osama bin Laden was armed when he was killed early Monday by U.S. forces, spurring critics to question whether his shooting violated international law.

Haste and the “fog of war” led to initial confusion over the circumstances of the raid on the compound in Abbottabad, according to White House spokesman Jay Carney. The New York Times, Reuters and the Washington Post have stories on Carney’s explanation, while Reuters and the Guardian have stories focusing on the international law debate.

Bin Laden had no weapons and did not use a female human shield, although his wife did rush U.S. forces, Carney said. She was shot in the leg, but did not die as initial reports indicated. Another woman on another floor did die, however. Although bin Laden was unarmed, he did resist U.S. forces, Carney said. There was gunfire from others, and U.S. troops feared people in the home were wearing suicide belts.

On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder asserted that the killing was lawful. The acts taken were “lawful, legitimate and appropriate in every way,” he told the House of Representatives.

Among the critics was international law professor Nick Grief of Kent University. The attack had the appearance of an “extrajudicial killing without due process of the law,” he told the Guardian. Human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson told the publication that bin Laden could have been tried by an ad hoc tribunal in The Hague with international judges.

On the other side is former State Department lawyer John Bellinger III. The killing does not violate a 1981 executive order barring assassinations because it was done in an ongoing U.S. armed conflict with al-Qaida, he said. The assassination prohibition also allows killings in self-defense, he said.

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