Operation Geronimo was authorized by Barack Obama and aimed to neutralize Osama bin Laden at his compound in Pakistan on May 1, 2011. In the course of this operation, the leader of the terrorist group was killed, which is an object of legal controversy. From the perspective of domestic and international law, the authorization of the execution is considered a controversial decision on the part of the US President.
First, critics of Operation Jeronimo emphasize that the US actions violated Pakistan’s sovereignty, as well as Osama bin Laden’s human rights. Additionally, the operation raises a number of issues related to the use of target killing as a tool of counter-terrorism. However, a more detailed examination of the aspects of the operation allows concluding that Barack Obama had the right to authorize the execution of Operation Geronimo, which is legitimate.
Target killing is a controversial topic in the legal field, even with regard to the operations against terrorist organizations. The assassination of Osama bin Laden was only part of a series of strategic uses of both special groups and drones to eliminate terrorists. In 2009, there were about 225 strikes, which resulted in the target killing of 1100 to 1800 militants (Govern, 2012, p. 366). Additionally, the number of covert raids in 2009 – 2011 increased by about 1200 cases (Govern, 2012, p. 367).
Thus, the use of targeted killing at some point has become a priority strategy for counter-terrorism activities. However, from a legal point of view, these measures raise questions related to the need to capture militants and treat them as criminals within the framework of the law. Such operations as Geronimo are planned far in advance and are aimed at neutralizing terrorists, but the execution process does not always end with a capture, as in the case of bin Laden.
Therefore, the operation was designed to capture or kill a specific target, Osama bin Laden, which is the subject of both domestic and international law. Govern (2012) notes that “targeted killings may be conducted by governmental elements under fairly specific circumstances” (p. 347). In particular, the Barack Obama administration used laws on self-defense and armed conflict to legitimize an operation on the territory of another independent country (Schaller, 2015, p. 197). While both of these concepts raise questions about the legal justification of the killing of the terrorist under international law, the US domestic law allowed President Obama to approve the plan and its execution.
Self-Defense According to Article 51
The legal controversy imposed by Operation Geronimo is the killing of an Al Qaeda leader on Pakistani territory by the US forces. Article 51 of the UN Charter authorizes the US to target in response to armed attacks against US military personnel or civilians in Afghanistan “and from across the porous border areas with Pakistan” (Paust, 2011, p. 580). This act is considered in the framework of the law on self-defense or the law of war, which does not require the consent of Pakistan to conduct an operation on the territory of the country.
However, Ambos & Alkatout (2012) emphasize that target killing was only possible if there was an armed conflict unfolding between the US military forces and Al Qaeda. In particular, it is noted that the actions of the Special Forces were “extrajudicial killing forbidden under general human rights law” (Ambos & Alkatout, 2012, p. 365). Moreover, Pakistan’s absence of consent to the operation is contrary to international law.
Article 51 enables states to use force as self-defense when there is a constant threat to the security of the US and its citizens. The US authorities could not know for sure whether bin Laden was the terroristic leader of Al Qaeda after many years of lack of open activity. At the same time, it was also impossible to refute this fact since the terrorists could plan new attacks on US territory. The US considered bin Laden as a threat to its security, and the Pakistani government could not provide an adequate response. Thus, the US actions do not violate the UN Charter, as it allows the use of force in another independent country as an act of self-defense
The assumption that at the time of the execution of the US and the immediate territory on which bin Laden’s compound was located were not in the state of an armed conflict can also be refuted. De facto, the theater of war was expanded since Al Qaeda could plan and authorize its armed attacks in Afghanistan from the given point (Paust, 2011). Thus, a direct US invasion of Pakistani territory is also legitimate since it is conducted under Article 51. The group under the leadership of bin Laden could have participated in armed conflicts with the US forces in Afghanistan. Thus, Barack Obama had the right to authorize Operation Geronimo, as the US government acted exclusively within the UN Charter.
In addition, the operation poses the issue of whether the Pakistani government was unable or unwilling to take action to capture bin Laden. The US government did not coordinate the operation with the Pakistani government, as it was concerned that some members of the military or intelligence personnel had contacts with terrorists. Thus, conducting the operation covertly was a necessary measure since bin Laden could get information about the impending attack and leave his compound. In this regard, the US did not violate the right to Pakistani sovereignty since this decision is also a part of self-defense actions.
International Human Rights Laws
In terms of human rights, the killing of bin Laden also does not violate his right to life. First of all, “according to what has been disclosed by the Obama Administration, the Seals did not have effective control of bin Laden while he was alive” (Paust, 2011, p. 581). Thus, he could not be protected by human rights law reflected in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Additionally, Barack Obama authorized the killing or capture of bin Laden depending on circumstances. International Human Law (IHL) does not obligate to refrain from killing when the capture is possible (Schaller, 2015).
However, if the target expresses a clear desire to surrender, does not attempt to escape, and does not show hostility, then it cannot be attacked. In this case, the seals who participated in the operation noted that although bin Laden was unarmed, he still did not want to surrender, which became the basis for the killing (Schaller, 2015). Thus, bin Laden is legitimate from the perspective of human rights laws, since it was impossible to clearly establish the intentions of the target.
In conclusion, Operation Geronimo is a controversial episode from the point of view of the legal field, but upon closer examination, it is within the framework of all the necessary laws. In the first place, the operation execution did not violate Pakistan’s sovereignty, as the US used it as an act of self-defense. Additionally, the US was in an armed conflict with forces of Al Qaeda since bin Laden could plan and authorize the US military attacks in Afghanistan from the Pakistani compound. Finally, the killing of the leader of a terrorist organization does not violate human rights since no apparent intention to surrender was received from him. Thus, Barack Obama had the right to authorize the operation since the violation of domestic and international laws cannot be proven.
Ambos, K., & Alkatout, J. (2012). Has ‘justice been done’? The legality of bin Laden’s killing under international law. Israel Law Review, 45(2), 341-366. Web.
Govern, K. H. (2012). Operation Neptune Spear: Was killing bin Laden a legitimate military objective? In C. Finkelstein, j. Ohlin, & A. Altman (eds)., Targeted killings law and morality in an asymmetrical world (pp. 347-373). Oxford University Press.
Paust, J. J. (2011). Permissible self-defence targeting and the death of bin Laden. Denver Journal of International Law & Policy, 39(4), 569-583.
Schaller, C. (2015). Using force against terrorists ‘outside areas of active hostilities’—the Obama approach and the bin Laden raid revisited. Journal of Conflict & Security Law, 20(2), 195-227. Web.