A recent front page of The New York Times featured an article entitled Drug chieftains tied to Taliban are U.S. targets – Shift in Afghan policy. It stated that:
Fifty Afghans believed to be drug traffickers with ties to the Taliban have been placed on a Pentagon target list to be captured or killed and that major traffickers with proven links to the insurgency have been put on the joint integrated prioritized target list.’ That means they have been given the same target status as insurgent leaders, and can be captured or killed at any time.
According to this newly announced policy, 50 alleged civilian drug dealers have now been made subject to targeted killing if they cannot be captured.
When Israel used targeted killings to kill Sheik Salah Shehade, Sheik Ahmed Ismail Yassin, and Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, who were admitted leaders of terrorist groups that were engaging in combat against Israeli civilians, it faced a tsunami of condemnation from the U.S., the E.U., the U.K., the French, the Italians, the Russians, the U.N., and The Vatican. Yet there has been no comparable outcry from the international community, despite the fact that the U.S.’s policy is less defensible morally and legally for the following reasons:
Israel has used targeted killings to protect civilians against war crimes, from an enemy sworn to its destruction. The U.S. is using a far broader form of targeted killing, thousands of miles away from its civilian population, against an enemy that poses no immediate threat to its civilian population.
Drug traffickers are not direct combatants, thereby making an attack on them far more questionable under international law.
International law requires that any attack must be intended and tend toward the military defeat of the enemy. Israel has targeted those known to be directing the terrorist attacks, whereas, here it is less than clear that killing a drug trafficker would tend towards a military defeat of the Taliban.
Compounding this, the ratio of terrorist to civilian deaths for the Israeli Air Force is better than 1:30 (Amos Harel, Pinpointed IAF Attacks in Gaza More Precise, Hurt Fewer Civilians, Haaretz, December 30, 2007.) – that is – 30 terrorists killed for every civilian, whereas that for the US is (The UN Special Rapporteur on unlawful executions, Philip Alston reported that as of 3 June 2009).
Israel developed targeted killings of terrorist leaders, particularly in the Gaza because it could not arrest the terrorists who were ordering the firing of rockets at Israelis. The most notorious leaders, Shehade, Yassin, and Rantissi were only targeted after publicly acknowledging that they were giving the orders and pulling the triggers and were responsible for hundreds of Israeli deaths. Targeted killings, like most other military actions in densely populated areas, will inevitably lead to some civilian deaths, but Israel has taken action to reduce the ratio of civilian to terrorist deaths to the lowest point in history for comparable actions.
The Israeli Supreme Court has limited targeted killing to terrorist engaged in terrorism. They would never permit it against drug traffickers or those who would not qualify as combatants. There will be some criticism of the US, but not condemnations – no draft of Resolution, boycott or divestment.
There will not even be the type of criticism directed against Israel by the likes of former UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who declared: "The British government has made it repeatedly clear that so-called ’targeted assassinations’ of this kind are unlawful, unjustified and counter-productive". Similarly, the French Foreign Ministry stated: France declares once again that extrajudicial executions contravene international law and are unacceptable". The Italian Foreign Minister joined this chorus of criticism, stating: "Italy, like the whole of the European Union, has always condemned the practice of targeted assassinations".
Martin S. Indyk, a previous American ambassador to Israel, was also open in criticizing Israel’s targeted killings when he said: ’’The United States government is very clearly on the record as against targeted assassinations They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that; as did former US Secretary of State Colin Powell when he said We continue to express our distress and opposition to these kinds of targeted killings and we will continue to do so. What is unclear is whether these statements, when considered in the light of the recent announcement that drug traffickers are to be targeted for killing by U.S. troops and drones, reflects a change in American policy, or simply another example of the double standard applied against Israel. It certainly looks like the latter.
The double standard displayed by the world makes a mockery of universal human rights and international humanitarian law. Neither will retain any degree of credibility if the operating principle’s rights for me but not for thee.
Alan M. Dershowitz is a professor of law at Harvard. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, The Case Against Israel’s Enemies.