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.)