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Professor calls killing of al-Qaeda leader ‘illegal’

Mel Flanagan | Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The killing of al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki by the U.S. military was illegal, international law Professor Mary Ellen O’Connell said Tuesday.

Awlaki, a radical Islamist cleric, was killed in an air strike Friday after hiding in Yemen for the past four years, according to a University press release. The CIA and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command carried out the strike.

O’Connell said the killing was not within the rights of the military because it occurred outside of a combat zone.

“Today under international law, the U.S. is involved in armed conflict hostilities in Afghanistan and Libya,” O’Connell said. “Those are the only two places where the U.S. military is permitted to carry out the kind of killing we saw in Yemen.”

Aside from armed conflict, the only permissible reason to take a human life is the immediate need to save another life, she said.

O’Connell added that while a person can interpret the word “immediate” in different ways, the U.S. has a great deal of experience in exercising the use of force and should know the meaning of the word in practice.

“That standard is well-known. It’s the standard that governs police forces,” she said. “A policeman doesn’t get to say, ‘Well, I’m going to kill this person because I think in another week or month they might help another person attempt to carry out the bombing of an airplane.'”

O’Connell said the CIA became more active in Yemen in 2003, where previously the FBI had maintained a close relationship with the Yemeni government as part of a joint terrorism investigation.

In recent years, however, the U.S. has been building a combative presence in Yemen, she said.

“In the course of about 10 years, we went through a big change in Yemen from the FBI and civilian law enforcement, which is what I think is appropriate, to a CIA and military operation,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell said the CIA is not the U.S. military and does not have any right to be involved in armed conflict killing, although the agency has become more directly involved in combative efforts abroad since the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001.

“It was a direct result of the decision to respond to 9/11 differently than we have ever responded to terrorist attacks before,” she said.

O’Connell also criticized the U.S. for the number of civilian casualties in Friday’s raid.

While governments tolerate the unintentional killing of civilians in a combat zone, O’Connell said there is no such collateral damage rule for peacetime law enforcement operations.

“If there is a sniper trying to get the hostage-taker, he can’t drop a bomb and kill the hostages along with the hostage-taker,” she said.

An expert from the United Nations responsible for investigating extrajudicial killing, the killing of individuals by a government without legal proceedings, will review the actions of the U.S., O’Connell said.

“The U.S. was already condemned for a very similar act in Yemen in 2002, and the current U.N. special rapporteur will be looking into this action,” she said. “I expect that he will also criticize the U.S., and that a number of governments will probably say something as well.”

O’Connell said many international leaders will avoid speaking out against the killing because they are distracted by the economy or will not risk their relationship with the U.S.

“But that does not mean we did the right thing,” she said. “In my view, the U.S. should always do the right thing — we should always promote the rule of law.”

O’Connell said Awlaki should have been arrested and put on trial, after which he would have likely been sent to prison.

“I’m a Catholic, and I believe the right to life is very precious and has to be taken very seriously,” she said. “I don’t think that happened here.”