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Et tu, Brute? Can assassinations ever be legal?

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Robin Lustig | 11:07 UK time, Friday, 19 February 2010

Suppose I know that you're planning to launch an attack on my family and my home. (The reason I know is that you've said so, many times. And you've already attacked us in the past.) What am I entitled to do to stop you?

I can put stronger locks on the doors. I can buy a gun and bullets, or a baseball bat, and prepare to repulse you by force if you burst through my front door.

But am I entitled to shoot you anyway, just to make sure you can't do any more harm?

I suspect you're tempted to answer No. Which would mean, to couch it in lawyer-speak, that you do not subscribe to the doctrine of "pre-emptive self-defence."

So let's consider another scenario. It's early 2003. The US and its allies are about to invade Iraq. I tell you that I am in the remarkable position of being able, without any room for doubt, to arrange for the assassination of Saddam Hussein. Thousands of lives could be saved. Would you approve?

You can see where this is going, can't you? Suppose the Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh was buying long-range missiles from Iran on his ill-fated trip to Dubai last month. Suppose it was the Israelis who killed him, on the grounds that if he did get his hands on the missiles, Hamas would use them to kill Israeli civilians. Would his murder be a case of pre-emptive self-defence? Or a flagrant breach of both international law and basic morality?

Of course, there's nothing new about assassinations. Brutus bumped off Julius Caesar in 44 BC and arguably ushered in the Romans' golden age. More recently, in 1944 AD, a group of German officers tried to kill Adolf Hitler: would you have approved if they had succeeded?

For the past few years - and with much greater frequency under President Obama than under President Bush - unmanned US drones have been killing alleged Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives, with a lot less fuss than there has been over the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh. (They've also been killing large numbers of totally innocent Pakistanis -- by one estimate, 687 civilians compared to 14 al-Qaeda operatives over a three-year period, in other words a ratio of nearly 50 civilians killed for every al-Qaeda operative killed.)

In 1986, US warplanes bombed Tripoli, in what looked to many people like an attempt to kill Colonel Gaddafi.

In 1988, a team of Israeli commandos murdered Yasser Arafat's Number 2, Abu Jihad, in Tunis.

In 2001, a Palestinian hit squad murdered the Israeli government minister Rehavam Ze'evi in a Jerusalem hotel.

Last month, the leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, Hakimullah Mehsud, was reported killed in a US drone attack.

I choose the examples almost at random. Go through them one by one, and then tell me: Do you approve of some of the killings? All of them? Or none of them?

If you want to know what the legal position is, well, it's complicated. But as I understand it (and remember, I'm no lawyer), there may, in some circumstances, be occasions when an assassination, in time of war, may be regarded as lawful.

But there are three conditions: first, that the use of force is necessary; second, that it complies with the principle of proportionality; and third, that it minimises the risk of civilian casualties.

Apply those tests to the killing of Mahmoud al-Mahbouh in his Dubai hotel room. Apply them to the use of unmanned drones in Pakistan.

Then let me know what conclusion you come to.


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