An RAF execution in Syria

It takes an ingenious lawyer to devise a legal justification for the execution by RAF drone strike last week of a UK citizen in Syria suspected – but never tried or convicted – of plotting a terrorist attack or attacks in Britain. Mr Cameron chose to defend this remote-control assassination on grounds of national self-defence, asserting that the Attorney-General, one Mr Jeremy Wright, had approved the action’s legality in international and domestic law. But Article 51 of the UN Charter, defining a country’s right to act in self-defence, is clearly related to war situations (“if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations…”), whereas the crime of which Reyaard Khan was suspected, and for which he was executed, had nothing to do with war: if he was guilty (and we shall never know whether he was), the crime he was plotting was a matter for the police and the security service, certainly not for an RAF air-strike.

I’m not a lawyer (some will say ‘obviously’), but this episode seems to me to raise some deeply troubling questions, as the usually reliable Dominic Grieve and others, including Harriet Harman as interim Labour leader, indicated in parliament yesterday.

First, how could the killing of a Briton in Syria have foiled a presumably imminent crime in the UK with such certainty and with such urgency that only the killing of the suspected plotter several thousands of miles away was capable of preventing it? Presumably those expected to carry out the terrorist attack were in Britain, not Syria, in which case the extra-judicial killing of their master-mind in Syria seems more likely to encourage them to go ahead in revenge with their bombing or other attack, rather than persuading them to abandon the whole thing.

Secondly, if Mr Khan’s plotting was known to the security service in sufficient detail to justify them in killing him, how could they not have had sufficient knowledge of the intended perpetrators in the UK to enable them to round them up and forestall the attack, leaving Mr Khan helpless on the sidelines in Syria? Or was he killed in case he might start some new plot if left alive? If so, the RAF will be kept busy for years to come.

Thirdly, was the crime for which Mr Khan was executed related to past terrorist attacks plotted but never carried out (as implied by the prime minister’s reference to plans to attack “high-profile public commemorations” over the summer), or to attacks intended to be carried out in the future? If the former, the asserted need to kill Mr Khan urgently in order to prevent a terrorist attack makes no sense: if the latter, what is the relevance of the plans to carry out attacks in the past, which were presumably foiled without the need to assassinate anyone in Syria?

Fourthly, when did the British parliament legislate to make plotting a terrorist attack an offence punishable by death, without the requirements of a criminal charge, a trial, conviction by a jury or a right of appeal? On what grounds does the British government claim to exempt Mr Khan from the protection of the numerous national and international statements of universal human rights, including the rights to life and to a fair trial? No doubt as an ISIS jihadist he was a bad and thoroughly misguided young man, but what has that got to do with killing him?

Fifthly, when did the British government assert that its jurisdiction in criminal cases extends to all foreign countries as well as the UK, and does it claim the right to punish foreigners as well as British citizens wherever in the world it can find and kill them?

And, lastly, have Mr Cameron and his associates considered the global implications of the principle they claim to have established? When President Putin’s intelligence service poisons the next Russian dissident exile in London on the grounds that this was the only available way to forestall a murder of innocent civilians in Moscow being planned from London, will Mr Cameron accept this asserted justification and congratulate Mr Putin on his swift and effective preventive action?

The Americans have long been murdering their own and other countries’ citizens around the world on the basis of mere suspicion of anti-American activity, as we all know. We have effectively accepted such indefensible lawlessness because there is nothing we can do about it, and it’s all part of a superpower’s belief in its own exceptionalism. But now Britain is apparently claiming the same right, and that is very alarming indeed.

The Labour, SNP, Green, etc. opposition in parliament should condemn the murder of Mr Khan without reservation, call on the government to promise never to repeat such arbitrary killing, and promise that a future centre-left government will legislate promptly to outlaw any repetition. (The thought that of the four current candidates for the Labour leadership, only Mr Corbyn seems likely to adopt such a firm position and commitment is a profoundly melancholy one. Perhaps Yvette and Andy, even Liz, will also rise to the occasion and prove me wrong.)


9 Responses

  1. Phil says:

    Thanks for this, Brian. I really struggle to see how article 51 is engaged at all in the absence of a state of war between Britain and Syria (or any other nation). Rather than anything actually grounded in international (or domestic) law, what seems to be going on is a systematic exploitation of grey areas – an attack on an entity which isn’t a state, in territory which isn’t under effective state control, killing two people who were British citizens but had turned against the country (how unfortunate for the government that declarations of outlawry can’t be made any more).

    But I’m not a lawyer either…

  2. David Campbell says:

    A revolting act, and a stupid one. Nauseating, the way the announcement was linked to the immigration problem. ISIS will be rejoicing at the way we have let ourselves get drawn further into illegality and war.

    I don’t suppose for a minute that any of these young men is the master mind HMG claims to have destroyed. I contacted my (SNP) MP yesterday, urging him to hold the government to account.

  3. Tim Weakley says:

    It sounds as if the Government is panicky about the number of Moslem Britons sloping off to enlist in IS and has decided to Make An Example of someone, without thinking through the likely and mostly undesirable consequences.

  4. Rob says:

    Article 51 continues: “… measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council” Correctly, Mr Cameron announced that he will be writing to the UN Secretary General to report that the killing of Reyaard Khan was an act of self-defence. But he has put the cart before the horse.

    Khan was on the radar for some time so, with no imminent threat, it was a matter for the Security Council – not for the PM nor for the Attorney-General to rule on the legality. Chapter 7, Article 39 is clear on the point: it is for the “Security Council [to] determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and shall make recommendations“.

    This is all too reminiscent of 2003.

  5. formula57 says:

    Upholding international law is very important but let us not at the same time make a pusillanimous retreat in the face of reality. And reality in the case of ISIS members operating within the self-proclaimed Caliphate is that they are our mortal enemies, professing and doing evil the like of which has not been witnessed in this world for some time, and if they are British they are also guilty of treason. That should stand as a necessary and sufficient justification for killing them. ISIS cannot (and so far as I am aware, does not wish) to be accommodated: what more does its operatives have to do to become legitimate targets?

  6. David Campbell says:

    Without wishing to pre=empt your response to Formula57, Brian, what immediately strikes me is that killing  British citizens without trial in a foreign country is precisely the sort of behaviour which outrages idealistic young Muslims. This strengthens Islamic State’s recruitment drive and will to win. It serves their strategic objectives, not ours.

  7. Brian says:

    “Formula57”:  I’m disturbed by your suggestion that respect for the rule of law is to be equated with “a pusillanimous retreat in the face of reality”.  One of the state’s principal responsibilities towards its citizens is to protect them, not to kill them, however badly they might behave.  We may be unable and unwilling to forgive or excuse the atrocities committed by ISIS and by other Islamic extremists, but it’s simply stupid to fail to try to understand what is making them so angry, and one of the triggers for their anger is very obviously resentment of the actions of dictatorial middle east regimes and the western governments which support them in killing large numbers of their fellow-Muslims.  Even in Syria, where most western governments would like to see Assad deposed, American and now British drones are carrying out killings of Muslims.  Now Mr Cameron wants parliamentary approval for even more bombing and rocketing of Muslims in Syria.  Can we never, ever, learn from past mistakes?

    Rob:  You make an excellent point.  Thank you.  The UK letter to the UN Secretary-General is pure hypocrisy.  Everyone knows that we have not the slightest intention of handing over to the Security Council control of policy to frustrate terrorism in the UK.

    David Campbell:  I entirely agree.  Killing yet more people in this conflict will solve no problems and will further strengthen hatred of Britain and other western countries who behave in this mindless way.

    This is a major scandal.  But the media and the politicians are so preoccupied with Corbyn and the tidal wave of migrants moving across Europe that hardly anyone is paying any attention to it — least of all, it seems, Mr Corbyn.

  8. John Greenwell says:

    I agree this is dreadful – the killing of a national in a foreign country by a drone, with a purported explanation of almost meaningless generality. The absence of a full explanation, and detailed public statement of all the facts and reasons on which the decision was based, is indefensible.

    It is not though correct to say that self-defence in international law, under Article 51, is restricted to situations of ‘war’. Nor is it confined to States. It extends to non-State actors. But the defence can only be invoked if the State in which the threat is located , is unable or unwilling to exercise its territorial police powers and, in addition, if the threat is both imminent and serious. The imminence and seriousness of the threat must be extremely great, to justify intervention to prevent it.

  9. Brian says:

    Brian writes: John, welcome back, and many thanks for the useful correction, which actually discredits Mr Cameron’s claim to have acted in the self-defence of the UK even more comprehensively. It even discredits the alternative version of the defence put forward in the UK letter to the UN Secretary-General, namely that we had assassinated a British citizen in Syria in the “collective self-defence” of Iraq, apparently nothing to do with a necessary, urgent and proportionate response to an imminent threat of terrorism in Britain. Anyway, the idea that the continued existence of this 21-year-old British Muslim in Syria presented such a serious and imminent threat to the safety of the UK that the only way to foil it was to kill him is intrinsically so implausible that a huge amount of supporting information and argument are required for it to be credible. And of those there is no sign. It’s insulting.