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Whatever happened to the Rule of Law?

We all know that Osama bin Laden was killed last week when the US busted in on his hiding place in Pakistan, shot him dead and buried his body at sea.

Now one of bin Laden’s sons is challenging the legality of his father’s death.

Omar bin Laden, age 30, accuses the US of violating international law when it killed his unarmed father, shot relatives and dumped the body in the ocean. Omar argues that the US should have arrested his father and put him on trial, and that the principles of presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial were ignored.

The US’s defence to this is that Article 51 of the UN Charter allows a country to defend itself. Osama bin Laden had declared war on the US, killed thousands in 9/11 – he was deemed to be a combatant. His death was part of the larger goal to dismantle al-Qaeda.  

Interestingly, both sides cite international law to support their arguments.

My gut reaction is to cheer that bin Laden is finally dead, and to ridicule his son’s complaints. But a small part of me remembers that I have just spent the past 3 years in law school where the Rule of Law was a recurring theme. Nations like the US pride themselves on respecting the rule of law above all else, but the manner in which bin Laden was taken down smacks of revenge, not justice.

It seems that we justify our actions like this: he didn’t play by the rules; therefore we don’t have to either. I’m not sure this is consistent with the standards of due process, human rights and related values that we claim to stand for and want others to follow.

If we can’t adhere to the rule of law, what separates us from them?

PS. That was a discussion of theoretical ideals. In the real world, Barack Obama probably gave the right command, after weighing the retaliation against the US that might have ensued while bin Laden was in custody and his fans embarked on a “free Osama” campaign. It was a matter of choosing the lesser of  two evils....


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