More from O’Connell on bin Laden Killing as Peacetime Use of Force
The use of lethal force is governed by two types of international law: the law of peace and the law of armed conflict. In peace, international law supports national legal systems when it comes to the resort to force. National systems restrict the use of force to law enforcement authorities — the police, or in special circumstances, the military (I argue here that the SEALs, who are military, kept their use of force at law enforcement levels). Unauthorized persons may resort to force in self-defense if necessary to save a life immediately. Otherwise, using force is considered a crime under international law.
Some crimes are so serious they are outlawed in international law, as well as national law, with the crime of terrorism is a prime example. As an international crime, states around the world have an obligation to suppress terrorism. But in suppressing even the most serious crimes, law enforcement agents must limit the amount of lethal force they use, and excessive force, even in anti-terrorism cases, has been ruled a violation of human rights law by both the European Court of Human Rights [ECHR] and the Inter-American Court.
The ECHR considered a case in 1995 with parallels to the bin Laden raid. In McCann v. The United Kingdom, the court found that members of the elite British SAS used excessive force when they killed IRA members in Gibraltar who were suspected of preparing a bombing. The court found that the operatives should have attempted to arrest the terrorists, instead of shooting them based on intelligence they possessed that the suspects were preparing to use explosives. If the suspects had resisted arrest or attempted to escape, authorities then would have had had the right to resort to lethal force.
This is the law that applied in bin Laden’s case. On May 2, no fighting was going on in Pakistan that would rise to the level of “armed conflict” as defined under international law; Pakistan had to suspend major military operations against militant groups in the country’s tribal areas after the floods of 2010. And despite what some commentators have argued, under international law there is no right to engage in cross-border military force based on the argument that a state is unable or unwilling to deal with the threat themselves. The correct choice of law, therefore, was peacetime law.