US sets a dangerous precedent for states to assassinate enemies

31st Jan 2020
US sets a dangerous precedent for states to assassinate enemies

(Photo: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images)

The assassination of Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani by the United States marks the most dangerous escalation between Washington and Tehran since the 1979 hostage crisis.

Yet, by refusing to retaliate in kind, Iran deserves much credit in temporarily reducing the inflamed tinderbox through ensuring there would be no casualties when targeting reprisal strikes against US bases in Iraq.

But without President Donald Trump being brought to heel, a dangerous precedent has been set opening an era of targeted killings.

On December 4, 1981, Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12333 on the ‘United States Intelligence Activities’ which prohibits assassination as a matter of national policy. “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination,” it read. Even indirect participation was banned. The CIA has a long and notorious history of helping to kill or depose a succession of leaders around the world.

EO 12333 has since been relaxed for targets classified as terrorists. Since terrorists are considered ‘non-state actors’ (i.e., people not officially employed by a government), they can be legally killed. General Soleimani was not a non-state actor nor was Iraq’s Deputy Chief of the Popular Mobilisation Committee, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis who was also assassinated.
The Trump Administration claiming that its latest killings were not assassinations, it played a game of semantics trying to legitimise them as lawful and justifiable use of force.

The problem is that there is no fixed, formal definition of assassination, allowing anyone without scruples to invent politically charged labels and manipulate broader meanings of words to suit their convenience. It goes back to the adage that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’

Such disdain has been shown that the current US President has not even bothered to present a rationale under international law even though it could open up Trump to charges that the killing was unlawful and therefore an assassination.

Details released so far do not meet the conditions of what is being called “lawful self-defence” that would be necessary to make the killing legal under international law. But then again as the world’s largest power, past administrations have also presented little legal justification.

Article 2 of the UN Charter prohibits the threat or use of force by one state against another, but with two exceptions: when the use of force is carried out with the consent of the host state; and when the use of force is in self-defence in response to an imminent threat or attack. The legality of a targeted drone strike must also be evaluated in accordance with international humanitarian law, including the fundamental principles of distinction, proportionality, humanity, and military necessity.

A justification of drone strikes by the US is in the ‘Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists’, passed a week after 9/11. It permits presidents to use “all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on 11 September 2001 or harboured such organizations or persons.”

Ironically while Soleimani may have been an accomplished and dedicated foe of American forces in the Middle East, he was a highly decorated General and public figure on official business, travelling openly to Baghdad at the invitation of Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi.

He was on a diplomatic mission aimed at easing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran at the request of Trump when he was assassinated. His assassination is such a dangerous precedent and as has been pointed out, the Americans and Soviets did not kill one another’s high-ranking officials during the Cold War.

As Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has pointed out, the General was “the most effective force fighting Daesh (ISIS), Al Nusrah, Al Qaeda et al.” He was the antithesis of what the Americans tried to claim, though no doubt with his operations in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen as well as Iraq, he was seen as the Number One enemy of Washington’s ultimate ally, Israel. But an Osama bin Laden or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi he was not.

Prime Minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohammed, tweeted, “Is there any difference between the killing of Soleimani and that of Khashoggi?” Mahathir underlined that Soleimani was assassinated in Iraq by “the very people who condemned the killing of Khashoggi”.
Another high profile person to be assassinated by Trump with Soleimani was Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, deputy head of Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces), which is part of the Iraqi army.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson failed to respond when The Muslim News asked him what was the response of the PM on Trump’s assassination of the Iraqi PMF Commander. The reason seems to be that UK Government and the UK media, which focused mainly on Soleimani, wanted the focus to be on Iran and not on Iraq as it would create more challenges on the diplomatic front and international law.

The failure of the world speaking out to denounce what could equally be called state terrorism shows that if you are a world power, international law does not apply.

Even the UK refused to publicly call the assassinations breaches of international law. Instead, Prime Minister, Boris Johnson gave full support to Trump saying, “Clearly, the strict issue of legality is not for the UK to determine since it was not our operation.”

In contrast, Johnson condemned Iran for retaliating to the assassination of Soleimani by saying, “We, of course, condemn the attack on Iraqi military bases hosting coalition forces,” and threatened Iran, “Iran should not repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks but must instead pursue urgent de-escalation.” One law for the powerful and another for the rest of the world.

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