The UN should issue death warrants against dangerous dictators
World leaders attend a UN Security Council meeting at the United Nations headquarters September 24, 2009 in New York City.
May 13th, 2011
09:01 AM ET

The UN should issue death warrants against dangerous dictators

The following is an edited transcript of my interview with former U.S. State Department Director of Policy Planning and current professor of international relations at Princeton, Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter.  She argues that the United Nations should issue death warrants against dangerous dictators - killing a few to spare the many.

Amar C. Bakshi: In 2003 you wrote an article in Foreign Policy entitled “Mercy Killings: Why the United Nations should issue death warrants against dangerous dictators.” Do you still hold this view?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: The question of targeting individuals in a conflict has to be viewed from two different perspectives.  The first perspective is that of traditional war, where instead of going after individuals, you wipe out entire armies, cities or population centers.  From that perspective going after individuals looks like a major advance.But the other perspective is from the domestic rule of law standpoint where we do not kill people unless we have proved they are guilty.  Even then in many societies we incarcerate them rather than kill them. From that perspective, targeted assassinations look completely lawless.

I think we are heading into an era in which we are going to have to sort out the rules as to when such killing is permissible and when it’s not.

I think going after bin Laden was permissible, particularly because it was very clearly a capture or kill operation. But, in my view, even if it had only been a kill operation, you can make a good argument that that would be legal.

On the other hand, having a list of leaders that you are going to take out is very troubling morally, legally and in terms of precedent.  If other countries decide to apply that principle to us, we’re in trouble.

So we’re going to have to grapple with these issues. With new technologies, with the norm of the protection of civilians, with individual accountability generally, and things like the International Criminal Court, this is where the law of war and the law on terrorism are both heading.

In the case of Libya, is killing Gadhafi legal?

We, the West, are not at war with Gadhafi so that means pretty clearly you can’t target him for death.  Even if you were at war with him, he’s still a recognized head of state and the law of war does not allow you to target the heads of state.  I don’t see any argument right now which would allow us to deliberately target Gadhafi and have that be legal.

Do you envision UN Security Council authorization for "mercy killings"?

What I can imagine happening is indictments by the International Criminal Court and then a resolution by the United Nations that authorizes the capture or killing of someone under indictment just as here if you have an indicted criminal, the police want to capture that person but if they kill them while resisting arrest, that is deemed legal.

So I could imagine a combination of a judicial process – because you don’t just indict someone, you have to have evidence, and there are all sorts of checks and balances – and then a political process that would allow any individual effectively to bring that person to justice. We are probably a ways away, but it’s not unthinkable.

This would be international action across borders to capture or kill?

Yes, but if you’re going to get a UN resolution, it’s going to be pretty extraordinary circumstances and that’s as it should be. This cannot be a process - even if we had it - that could be easily politicized because no head of state or no head of any part of a state would be able to practice.

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Topics: Ideas • Libya • Military • Osama bin Laden • United Nations

soundoff (142 Responses)
  1. 1GregM`

    The very last thing the UN should be asked to do ias to sit in judgement of another country's dictator since they cannot govern themselves beyond how much of the money earmarked for helping poor countries they are going to steal. They are a joke and a terrible waste of time, money and energy.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:45 pm | Reply
  2. hebgb

    Osama voted to off OBlunder – does that count as his vote? Did anyone else agree – I haven't heard. Hey they already hate us at the UN so it fits.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:48 pm | Reply
  3. blessedgeek

    What happens when the UN casts a vote and declares the US President or the President of China or the PM of Israel "a dangerous dictator"? World politics are at the whims of nations at odds and in conflict with each other. They cast a vote to voice their opinion, to express their plight of their poverty being ignored.

    Oh, the Security Council member could veto the vote? So what's the point in having the vote? Very well sure that China would veto the assassination of Gaddafi.

    This is a really poorly thought-out idea because it disregards realities of world politics.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Reply
  4. USSocialist

    I knew it! Politicians are mobsters!

    May 15, 2011 at 11:02 pm | Reply
  5. Jay Delgado

    The problem with Anne-Marie's suggestion is that there is no, one, steadfast rule of morality to go by when it comes to determining who is worthy of death. Who's rule do we use? Jewish? Christian? Muslim (snicker)?
    Moreover, what if Dictators make a point of it to get on the 'committees' that determine who lives and who dies? Would it be okay with Anne-Marie if *SHE* is targeted for death by the International Criminal Court?
    This lady makes me nervous in ten different ways....
    By the way, Anne-Marie: the ICC isn't a valid court and it is only made up of a bunch of people who like to play 'Halloween dress up' all year long. They have no more jurisdiction over a free people than the man on the moon.
    Anne-Marie is patently silly in what she says and thinks (i.e. that a "New World Order" is the savior of mankind and that it is inevitable).

    May 16, 2011 at 1:46 am | Reply
  6. BJJCA

    We cannot have ratified conventions against torture and yet perform torture, ratified conventions for treatment of prisoners and due process and not treat prisoners with dignity and allow them their human rights, and ratified conventions against assassinations and then condone assassinations. Yet this is precisely what we are doing (the U.N., and the U.S.)

    We need to either withdraw from these conventions (disastrous in my opinion,) or uphold them, one or the other.

    May 16, 2011 at 3:01 am | Reply
  7. BeatrixKiddo

    I say we send Charlie Sheen in and wipe them all out!

    May 16, 2011 at 5:47 am | Reply
  8. Ben

    Great! So, who decides. Do we use this new power against Quadaffhi or Assad (or only ones we can catch and sending the message of never back down and be more brutal if you are a dictator. These are not things for international courts it is up to the courts and people of these countries to take their own actions.

    May 16, 2011 at 7:32 am | Reply
    • Liberal87

      The people of Syria can't "take action" against Assad because they are unarmed. Right now the protests are still alive, and this murderer is trying to stop them. All they can do is continue protesting and pray for the downfall of this corrupted regime...

      May 16, 2011 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  9. Iqbal

    Will this warrant Include Aerial Sharon,Ehud Barak and Benjamin natanyahu? Any UNO approval without this names, is biased,genocide,and unacceptable. Why is America killing innocent citizens in so called NATO action in Libya while scandalously keeping quite on daily abuse and massacre of Palestinians. The U.S. Problem can never be over until it acknowledges and accept Israel atrocities. Is the life of a Palestinians inferior to the life of other human beings.

    May 16, 2011 at 7:55 am | Reply
  10. DogOwnerMD

    I have a long history working in the US government and disagree with the "pax-Americana" approach to the world's problems. Yes, I am a true American patriot but the FACT is, a populist democracy created in a 'fast food' environment as we are witnessing in the Middle East right now is a prescription for anarchy and disaster. Bad governance is better than no governance because with no governance innocents get killed just like they do under dictators.

    Rather than throw our (former) Middle Eastern allies under the bus and abandon them (ergo Hosni Mubarak) we should have used what leverage we used to have (we have none now) to transform the government slowly but surely into an emerging democracy that is accountable to its people. The pace of events and crazed way it is happening at present is too much too soon for these people.

    Also, as predicted by many, the International Criminal Court is really nothing but a means to bully weaker governments/states under a veneer of concern for populations in cases where there are abuses by government security forces........such that each and every state leader is held responsible under some sort of genocide charge......quite hypocritical when you think about it.

    May 16, 2011 at 10:44 am | Reply
  11. sanjosemike

    Personality cults of thug leaders have been the curse of humans ever since our first warlords (and still exist, btw). I'm not sure what the best method is to get rid of them, but in the nuclear age, they do represent a threat to human survival. Maybe you disagree that death warrants should be issued....Maybe you'd prefer a system of courts and laws deal with this (Den Hague...International Courts).

    Either way, we need to find some way to prevent "personality cult" dictators from getting nuclear weapons. Our survival depends on it.

    May 16, 2011 at 11:09 am | Reply
  12. J

    The fact that there are "rules of war" has always seemed silly. Not targeting heads of state? Complete BS. Take them out and you can possibly end the conflict in one swoop.

    Like Darth Vader said "Join me and together we can end this destructive conflict", because they were going to kill The Emperor.

    May 16, 2011 at 11:59 am | Reply
  13. Mark L.

    I am elated that our elite Navy SEAL Team went in and got al Qaeda terrorist and supreme leader, Osama bin Laden; however, I think we still need to issue "Death Warrants" on Ayman al-Zawahiri and, although unrelated to al Qaeda, I believe it would be equally important to go after Mahmoud "Adolf Hitler, Jr." Ahamdinejad of Iran. Both are, what I would consider, extremely dangerous, Islamo-FASCIST DICTATORS and both need to join bin Laden in HELL !!

    May 16, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Reply
    • capnmike

      Please include Hugo Chavez

      May 16, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  14. Veritas

    The death penalty does not exist under international law. All civilized nations have long since abolished state-sanctioned premeditated murder. Hopefully, one day the United States will join the civilized nations of the world and remove the option to kill an inmate from its penal code. It is a national disgrace and an embarrassment that the state still commits premeditated murder as punishment for crimes.

    May 16, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Reply
    • capnmike

      It's called "Taking out the trash", and it should be legal everywhere. It's a disgrace and an embarrassment to allow murdering power-crazed dictators to continue to rule and destroy lives.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  15. capnmike

    The entire world needs to adopt some kind of policy limiting ANY "leader" to a certain period of time in his position, and forcibly removing if necessary those who violate this.

    May 16, 2011 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  16. jack

    Did the British king issued "Death Warrants" on our founding fathers, theose terrorists?

    May 16, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  17. Ted

    If O.P.E.C. or the Warsaw pact desides to issue a death warrent for a natioal leader will it be legal? According to the path the U.N. wants to follow that would be perfectly legal .The U.N. is trying to set a precedent that will surley come back to bite the weastern nations on the BUTT. They had better not open that can of worms.Hugo Chavez and his ilk will see this as LEGALIZED POLITICAL ASSINNATION and try to take advantage of it..

    May 16, 2011 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  18. Seriously...

    Death warrants? Forget it, the UN should simply assassinate Gaddafi, etc. with no warning. Why? Because the alternative is allowing thousands of unnecessary civilian deaths to occur in the meantime while Western leaders try to find an alternative solution (and history suggests that there is often none). Yes, I realize that this can open a can of worms, since international law would be broken in the process. But let's not forget that the purpose of law is to protect people. If international law gets in the way and would prevent the minimization of unnecessary human deaths, then the moral thing to do is to choose the lesser evil, namely break international law if necessary, to stop the dictators from doing more damage to innocent civilians.

    (And while we're at it: If there is evidence that it's cheaper to fund special forces than airport security, it might make more sense to consider the pre-emptive strike option more often. After all, the most effective way to prevent foreign terrorists from entering the U.S. is to eliminate them long before they even reach our borders.)

    May 16, 2011 at 10:02 pm | Reply
  19. Phil

    Once a "leader" someone proceeds to actively killing his or her own people (Mugabe. Saddam Hussain, Qaddafi; Assad, Burmese thugs, etc.) they should be unceremoniously eliminated. Other affronts – like pocketing aid money, should result in forced immediate dismissal with the threat of death. Remember the Wild West? That's what we have in the International arena. We have to get the outlaws and put them out of business, fast. This will not cure the world of its ills, but it will certainly help get us on the right path.

    May 16, 2011 at 10:44 pm | Reply
  20. SA

    If this policy were accepted over half of Africa's leaders would be on that list, the problem is that the people ready to step into these positions are just as bad if not worse.

    May 17, 2011 at 3:16 am | Reply
  21. Deryk Houston

    Anne-Marie Slaughter certaily understands the dangers of both sides of the equations. There is good reason for international law as it stands now. The problem is that the rubicon has already been crossed and anarchy has taken root. Obama has proved by his actions that he does not believe in international law. This is a catastrophic failure of the legal system and we are now sliding down the slope with no return.
    America has always said that it will not ratify an agreement to sign onto the International criminal court because it knows that it would be tried for war crimes. This is from one of the most powerful countries in the world and it will never place itself in a position where it will be tried for crimes.
    What is the point of the ICC if it can't or won't try leaders like Mr.Blair or Mr.Bush or even Obama for breaking international law? It clearly has no legitamacy or clout.
    At the very least, it should be completely independant of the UN which it was supposed to be in the first place. The UN should have no say in matters related to going after certain leaders who have broken international law. The reason I say that is because the UN does not fairly represent the world and is not a balanced system. It is controlled by a few counttries that hold enormous powers.

    May 17, 2011 at 10:27 am | Reply
  22. TowelHeadsAreMorons

    Next Halloween I'm going to put a potato on my dick (and a towel on my head) and go as a dictator.

    May 17, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Reply
  23. MeToo

    "the law of war" lol

    May 17, 2011 at 9:04 pm | Reply
  24. Charlie888888

    What nonsense > The US destroyed all credibility of any such proposition when they betrayed the world over WMD.
    Much of the world would consider Bush to be one of the i candidates.
    The US may not be a dictatorship but with legal support for political bribery (money equivalent to speech0 It can hardly be called a democracy.

    May 18, 2011 at 11:22 am | Reply
  25. khawar


    May 18, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Reply
  26. Tsmith

    Assassination and related covert operations are prohibited by executive order 12333 and they are in violation of article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter.

    The executive branch has removed Habeus Corpus, the presumption of innocence, due process, allowing for essentially indefinite detention without trial, and the U.S. has reinterpreted the law to allow for assassinations in peace time in violation of both U.S. executive order 12333 and the U.N. charter, and they have ignored the Geneva Convention in the "war against terrorism".

    I call upon the President to release all audio and video tapes of the alleged crime of assassination and murder of bin Laden, keeping with his campaign promise of transparency. If the audio and video are not released on the internet and to the international community, any claims to transparency is and was hypocrisy or simply a lie. Unedited tapes allegedly ordering the execution of bin Laden should be made available to the public, the U.N. and to congress for investigation and analysis. Congress must no longer be impotent in holding the executive branch responsible for illegalities and irregularities in covert and non-covert operations.

    I call on congress to call hearings on the alleged murder of bin Laden and U.S. covert operations and other involvement in overthrowing governments in the Middle East.

    I also call on the U.N. Human Rights court to sanction the U.S. for assassinating bin Laden and evading due process in time of peace. The war on terrorism is an unjust war, it is a manufactured war created by the U.S. executive branch to evade international law in peace time and avoid due process. Might does not make right. The end does not justify the means.

    It is time for the U.N., Congress, and the international community to step up and fulfill its responsibility in holding the executive branch responsible for targeted murder and participating in the overthrow of governments in the Middle East.

    Assassination and related covert operations are prohibited by executive order 12333 and they are in violation of article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter. The executive branch has removed Habeus Corpus, the presumption of innocence, due process, allowing for essentially indefinite detention without trial, and the U.S. has reinterpreted the law to allow for assassinations in peace time in violation of both U.S. executive order 12333 and the U.N. charter, and they have ignored the Geneva Convention in the "war against terrorism". Therefore, Obama like a Chicago mob boss executed bin Laden disregarding due process– this is the allegation, and if true, this is in violation of U.S. and international law.

    It is no different than vigilante justice, which by definition is no justice at all. If justice is obedience to the rule of law, by breaking the rule of law, this administration and all previous administrations have by definition committed an unjust act. Targeting killing is an unjust act of murder in the case of political leaders and the unarmed bin Laden.

    The law prohibiting assassinations was reinterpreted not to apply to terrorists or other leaders in the 1980s allowing for targeted killings of political leaders and their families as collateral damage. The U.S. removed all Geneva Convention rights for terrorists, allowing torture and murder by assassination of an unarmed individual in wartime, maintaining there is a war against terrorism. When this U.S. Administration maintains there is no war against terrorism then they are in violation of the the U.N. charter prohibiting assassinations during peace time.

    The executive branch has allegedly broken the law, and if this is the case, by definition this administration has committed an unjust act in the alleged murder of bin Laden without due process.

    Again, the U.S. government has removed Habeus Corpus, the presumption of innocence, evaded due process, allowing for essentially indefinite detention without trial, and the U.S. has reinterpreted the law to allow for assassinations in peace time in violation of both U.S. executive order 12333 and the U.N. charter, and they have ignored the Geneva Convention in the "war against terrorism".

    If these allegations are proven to be true, this means Obama is ultimately responsible for disregarding the rule of law and by definition this Administration has committed an unjust act of murder by executing bin Laden without due process and without a presumption of innocence, ignoring U.N. international human rights prohibiting such assassinations, and the Geneva Convention in time of war.

    I therefore call upon congress to call hearings on the issues expressed. Also for the international community to sanction the U.S. involvement in the Middle East, its repeated overthrow of governments in the Middle East, and the alleged assassination of bin Laden. There is no place for warrants for the arrest of any leader in violation of national sovereignty.

    May 18, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  27. Tsmith

    Is the U.N and the U.S., similar to the Bay of Pigs, attempting to overthrow one government after another in the Middle East with the assistance of France, Great Britain, and NATO? Is this the reason for the warrants? If so, then the warrants are unjust and the international community must see this as a war against leaders not sharing in Western values and culture.

    On what basis does the U.S. government, the U.N., the media, and this U.S. administration arrogantly decide which countries are legitimate, demanding their leaders to step down contrary to their national sovereignty and in violation of international law?

    I am not surprised that Russia feels threatened by this illegitimate intervention by the U.S., NATO, CNN, and the various other U.S. News media organizations. What right does CNN have to determine any legitimate form of government– this is ethnocentric and arrogant, and it presupposes some standard by which one determines a democracy is the sole legitimate form of government.

    The media across the board, and CNN in particular, appears to be engaged in an alleged effort of undermining foreign governments in the middle east and it appears to be participating in an alleged attempt to overthrow these governments raising the question of bias and legitimacy. The news organizations, CNN in particular, are siding with any opposition to the established governments thus undermining those foreign governments contrary to their national sovereignty. The international community should investigate any bias or any otherwise undue influence in the media leading to the ultimate overthrow of any government in the Middle East.

    It is a mistake to assume that Muslims countries are willing to embrace a Western form of government. The particular religious, social, and cultural narrative in the Middle East is different from that of the West. Calling their narrative “fundamentalist” is pejorative. It is disparaging and demonstrates Western ethnocentrism, but it also demonstrates Western ignorance of the Middle Eastern perspective and narrative.

    “The Pew Research Center survey of Muslim attitudes, (“Views of Harsh Punishments" Q108b-d, Dec. 2,
    2010), showed that of Egypt's 90% Muslims: 82% favor stoning people who commit adultery; 77% favor whipping/cutting off of hands for theft and robbery; and 84% favor the death penalty for people who renounce Islam.

    The comparable percentages, BTW, even in a “moderate” country like Jordan were, among its 92% Muslim population: 70%, 58% and 86% respectively.

    In the same survey, 54% of Egyptians also felt that suicide bombings can at times be justified (45% in Jordan).

    In other words, the vast majority of those Arabs are (what the West pejoratively calls, t.s.) fundamentalists who are interested in an Islamic tyranny of the majority – NOT (Western, t.s.) democracy that is based upon absolute equality and intellectual and civil freedom for all.

    And together with fundamentalist Islam goes the absolutely uncompromising attitude that Israel must be eliminated, not negotiated with, so that Israel – and the rest of the world – can be Muslim ruled. Like the Hamas charter plainly states:

    "There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors."

    Those interested in true democracy and compromise in the Arab world are, very unfortunately, a small minority...” FrankLW CNN commentary (See, 2011, May 18).

    If only a few are in fact concerned with democracy, the U.S., CNN, and the West are mistaken to engage in covert operations or media propaganda to undermine governments in an attempt to form Western democracies.

    May 18, 2011 at 4:53 pm | Reply
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