Neil Macdonald has a good piece on the CBC website today regarding the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born senior Al-Qaeda official, by way of a drone strike last week. He makes basically the same point I made earlier this year regarding the execution of Osama bin Laden: no one is weeping for the demise of people like this, but the undermining of the rule of law is profound. Macdonald's closing paragraphs are particularly effective:
"Would anyone want the Chinese leadership, or the Russian president, or the Venezuelan president carrying out strikes here or anywhere else they deem necessary, based on unreviewable secret intelligence?
Or, for that matter, as author Salman Rushdie said last week, would anyone want to see a President Michele Bachmann enjoy that sort of arbitrary power?"
On a more international legalistic point, this kind of thing has the strong potential to undermine the prohibition against the exercise of enforcement jurisdiction on the territory of other states, it making no difference whether it's an actual territorial incursion or just a drone strike. The situation regarding the bin Laden execution is still murky, as it remains unclear whether Pakistan authorized the attacks (either before or after the fact) so far as I can tell. In this situation, the target was killed in Yemen. While there have been some reports about cooperation between the Yemeni and American governments lately, I have yet to see any indication that any permission for this was forthcoming.
The strength of the norm is also undermined when other governments line up to cheer these executions, without taking the opportunity to protest -- even mildly -- the breach of territorial sovereignty which the act entails. The government of Canada was quick to do this regarding bin Laden, without any reflection on what it did to international law. This is not a government that always listens to its international legal advisers, who might tell them (if asked) that when one state takes illegal unilateral action and other states don't protest, that unilateral action is on the road to being less illegal.
Perhaps the next time the government of Canada is faced with an unlawful exercise of power by US officials on Canadian soil (which happens with disturbing frequency), they'll regret this lack of reflection. Or we will.