“The government’s power to kill must be carefully controlled – or it could turn into a tyranny worse than terror.” – Former CIA lawyer
“How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile?” And: “How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs?” – Heather Linebaugh, former UAV operator.
“In the absence of better of options, they [extrajudicial assassinations] are not only effective but moral as well.” – Douglas Murray, Associate Director of Henry Jackson Society.
If there was any further evidence required that neoconservatism – not democracy – is driving the policies of the present government, David Cameron’s recent defence of the assassination of Britons abroad is it.
For the Love of War
Before analysing the justificatory rhetoric, it is worth looking at the context in which Cameron revealed this unprecedented action. The use of emotions, which is a staple neocon technique to influence public opinion, was demonstrated in the speech in the most twisted manner. Whilst pouring over the refugee crisis, he called for a “comprehensive approach that tackles the causes of the problem as well as the consequences.” Predictably, this meant “stabilising” Syria and Libya; a euphemism for more military escapades in the Middle East as explained towards the end of the speech:
“I believe there is a strong case for the UK taking part in air strikes as part of the international coalition to target ISIL in Syria as well as Iraq.”
The pertinent absence of the cause of the present mayhem which has now triggered the displacement of populations is conspicuously absent: the West’s militarist, hegemonic foreign policy, resulting in a genocide of Muslims; bitter sectarian conflict; and hundreds and thousands of refugees.
State Wet Work – Reviving the George Bush Justifications
Historic events like the World Wars and the Bosnian genocide have established important precedents. The Nuremburg Trials, and the hearings at The Hague have entrenched an order which brought the concept of justice to even the most brutal of individuals.
Yet here we have Reyaad Khan, Junaid Hussain and Ruhul Amin: Britons blown to pieces by drones under the direct order of Cameron, who has in the process assumed the role of a judge, jury and executioner. When exactly was the death penalty abolished in Britain? And what value does the Magna Carta now have? We have a claim that Hussain and Khan were “seeking to orchestrate specific and barbaric attacks against the West”, and that their “intention was the murder of British citizens”. There is no way of ascertaining the validity of these claims, nor indeed the level of imminence of the threat. Even if such claims were ascertainable, they have not been tested in a court of law and held to a legal burden of proof. It truly is a shocking precedent.
However, we must recall that neoconservatism is the philosophy of governance being employed here, and this nihilist, relativist ideology does not bind itself by principles. Neoconservatism advocates double-standards and breaking of International law. Its leading advocates, like Douglas Murray, have even defended drone strike assassinations as “moral”.
Cameron regurgitates the very same rhetoric which were used by George W. Bush, despite it conflicting with fundamental tenets of international law.
For instance, he posits the killings in the context of counter-terrorism and ISIS, and therefore, he is “prepared to take that action and that’s the case whether the threat is emanating from Libya, Syria or from anywhere else.” After 9/11, Bush similarly gave notice of a war which had the globe as its theatre:
“Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”
Outlining the legal basis for the killings, Cameron states that, concordant to the undisclosed advice given by the Attorney-General, “there would be a clear legal basis for action in international law”. Explaining further, the UK was “exercising the UK’s inherent right to self-defence”. Again, the US administration similarly argued along this line.
“Clear legal basis”?
The claim of a “clear legal basis” is a tenuous one. Under the United Nations Charter, to which the UK and all sovereign states are bound by, the use of force is generally prohibited save for three exceptions constituting jus ad bellum. Among these three exceptions is the right of self-defence as found in Article 51 of the Charter which specifically mentions the occurrence of an “armed attack” as a trigger. Under international law, even border skirmishes do not constitute an “armed attack”, let alone isolated terrorist attacks.
Furthermore, Art. 51 is restricted to a state responsible for an armed attack. ISIS, or more pertinently, Khan is evidently not a “state”. As the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions stated,
“[E]ven if the use of interstate force is offered as a justification for a targeted killing, it does not dispose of the further question of whether the killing of the particular targeted individual or individuals is lawful.”
Neither, has there been an attack carried out on British soil by ISIS operatives. Cameron obfuscates this point by highlighting the attack in Tunisia where 31 Britons lost their lives. Theresa May, however, was clear that there was no evidence to suggest that British citizens were specifically targeted.
A further, major problem is that Syrian consent has not been obtained. Cameron attempts to circumvent this argument by stating,
“In this area, there is no government we can work with. We have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots.”
However, this is not a legal basis recognised in international treaty or the three primary sources of international law. Furthermore, the decision to determine a government is left to Cameron and his neocon advisors. In the horizontal arena of international law, how can the violation of territorial integrity be grounded in a subjective supposition determined by a single state? Russia is working with Bashar’s government, whilst January last year it was reported that European intelligence agencies, including a retired Mi6 officer, engaged with Assad’s regime in order to “combat jihadists”. Is the Syrian government legitimate? Morally, most definitely not, however, within the discourse of international law, it is certainly not within Cameron’s domain to determine at a whim whether or not there is a government.
Will of the Parliament
From a political point of view, there remains the pernicious impact on democracy. In September 2013, parliament had decided that there was to be no military action in Syria. However, in a classic case of mission creep, where RAF drone surveillance flights in Syria have steadily increased throughout this year, the will of parliament has been brazenly undermined in typical neoconservative fashion with this extrajudicial assassination.
A Failed, Dangerous Policy
This subversion of democracy has happened in pursuit of a defunct and counter-productive policy. Commenting on the drone policy of extrajudicial assassinations, the legal director of human rights organisation Reprieve stated,
Make no mistake – what we are seeing is the failed US model of secret strikes being copied wholesale by the British government… This also comes at a time when numerous American officials have said their own global drone killing policy has failed. As US strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have shown, this level of secrecy around drone killing is impractical and untenable – not least because mistakes are easily made, and can have devastating human consequences.
Among these America officials is retired Army General Mike Flynn, an intelligence official who worked for the Pentagon’s internal intelligence agency—the Defense Intelligence Agency. Calling targeted killing a “failed strategy” he admitted that drone strikes created more terrorists than they kill. He further stated:
“When you drop a bomb from a drone … you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good.”
There is also the issue of escalation. Would it be acceptable for Iran or Russia to engage in extrajudicial assassinations in the Western hemisphere? As CAGE noted in their press statement,
Based on the flawed logic presented by David Cameron, Vladimir Putin’s alleged extrajudicial killing Alexander Litvinenko in London was justified. Such double standards speak of hypocrisy and set a dangerous standard for the world”.
It seems Cameron’s government wishes to walk the path of those who have wrought nothing but misery in the Middle East. Through a combination of legal gymnastics, secrecy and subversion of due process and democracy itself, the British neocons are chasing the failed policies of American neocons. War is what created the scenario in which we assassinate our own citizens, and war, alongside mafia-style wet work garbed in advanced technology, is what it is being proposed as an antidote for this scenario. This circular, amazingly dangerous policy will mark a new low in the history of a Britain tainted by neoconservatism.
 Casey-Maslen, S., The War Report 2012, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p.238