It is perhaps a bit reckless to venture an opinion on the killing of Bin Laden until we have more information, especially given the somewhat contradictory versions that the United States has been providing. Credible reports indicate that when he was killed, Bin Laden was in his bedroom and he was unarmed. He was accompanied by his wife, and apparently a child was also present. He did not, contrary to early reports, use his wife as a 'human shield' although she may well have tried to prevent her husband from being killed, which should not surprise anyone. He was in his mid-50s and has been on kidney dialysis for many years.
If these facts are true, the killing of Bin Laden should be described as murder. In international human rights law, we would use the term 'extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution'. Such murder is obviously contrary to international law, it is contrary to the laws of Pakistan and it is contrary to the laws of the United States.
I don't even think that it is very useful in these circumstances to look at cases of 'targeted killings' using drones or other remote devices. This is a situation where the victim appears to have been under the physical control
of the perpetrators at the time he was killed.
Almost a year ago, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights issued an important ruling concerning the execution of Latvian peasants who had apparently sided with the Nazis during the Second World War. Many years later, the war hero who was responsible for the killings was prosecuted for war crimes. The European Court confirmed that summary execution was a war crime some 65 years ago. Nothing has changed since then. There is no legal exception that allows American soldiers to sneak into a country, confront an unarmed man in late middle age and to kill him, whatever the nature of the crimes of which he is suspected.
One can sympathize with those who lost their loved onces on 11 September. But the sort of grotesque gloating that was shown on American television reminded me of the 'Ding Dong the Witch is Dead' scene in The Wizard of Oz. I was rather shocked yesterday to hear the Irish Minister of Foreign Affairs being interviewed on the subject. When asked about whether the killing of Bin Laden was legal, all he could do was repeat trite phrases like 'the victims of 9/11 were also killed without warning or trial'. He meant this as a justification for the US action. But in reality, he was saying 'the US are no better than Al Qaeda'.
According to international human rights law, Pakistan has a duty to bring the perpetrators of this murder to justice. Bin Laden had a right to a fair trial, like anyone else.
I have couched these comments in a caveat about knowing more facts. The United States government is the only body in possession of the facts. It has a duty to make things clear. There can be no doubt that the whole business was well-documented and that the soldiers involved had video-cameras on their helmets. Possibly, they were acting in self-defence. But in any court of law, he or she who invokes self-defence as a justification for killing another human being has a burden of proof to demonstrate that the action was proportional, and that the threat to the lives of those who did the killing by the victim was genuine. Case law would not provide many precedents to suggest that armed intruders who surprise an older man in his own bedroom can invoke self-defence successfully. There are other means - Tasers, tear gas, etc. - that enable a suspected criminal to be taken into custody if there is a fear of life-threatening response. Case law on this is also quite clear: see the European Court decision in McCann.
But who knows? So show us the films and we can all decide.