Targeted assassinations violate well-established principles of international law. Also called political assassinations, they are extrajudicial executions. These are unlawful and deliberate killings carried out by order of, or with the acquiescence of, a government, outside any judicial framework.
Extrajudicial executions are unlawful, even in armed conflict. In a 1998 report, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions noted that "extrajudicial executions can never be justified under any circumstances, not even in time of war." The U.N. General Assembly and Human Rights Commission, as well as Amnesty International, have all condemned extrajudicial executions.
In spite of its illegality, the Obama administration frequently uses targeted assassinations to accomplish its goals. Five days after executing Osama bin Laden, Mr. Obama tried to bring "justice" to U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, who has not been charged with any crime in the United States. The unmanned drone attack in Yemen missed al-Awlaki and killed two people "believed to be al Qaeda militants," according to a CBS/AP bulletin.
The United States disavowed the use of extrajudicial killings under President Gerald Ford. After the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence disclosed in 1975 that the CIA had been involved in several murders or attempted murders of foreign leaders, President Ford issued an executive order banning assassinations. Every succeeding president until George W. Bush renewed that order. However, the Clinton administration targeted Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, but narrowly missed him.
In July 2001, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel denounced Israel's policy of targeted killings, or "preemptive operations." He said "the United States government is very clearly on the record as against targeted assassinations. They are extra-judicial killings, and we do not support that."
In November 2002, Bush reportedly authorized the CIA to assassinate a suspected Al Qaeda leader in Yemen. He and five traveling companions were killed in the hit, which Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz described as a "very successful tactical operation."
After the Holocaust, Winston Churchill wanted to execute the Nazi leaders without trials. But the U.S. government opposed the extrajudicial executions of Nazi officials who had committed genocide against millions of people. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, who served as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal, told President Harry Truman: "We could execute or otherwise punish [the Nazi leaders] without a hearing. But undiscriminating executions or punishments without definite findings of guilt, fairly arrived at, would ... not set easily on the American conscience or be remembered by children with pride."
Osama bin Laden and the "suspected militants" targeted in drone attacks should have been arrested and tried in U.S. courts or an international tribunal. Obama cannot serve as judge, jury and executioner. These assassinations are not only illegal; they create a dangerous precedent, which could be used to justify the targeted killings of U.S. leaders.