Event Report: State Sanctioned Murder with Professor Richard Falk

IHRC’s first event of 2021 was a webinar on Sunday, 10 January, with Professor Richard Falk, Massoud Shadjareh and Raza Kazim, called State Sanctioned Murder: Targeted Assassinations and Drone Attacks.

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Professor Richard Falk is a professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University and former United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.

Kazim opened the event with a brief introduction:

The US and allies have a long history of carrying out targeted, state sanctioned murder of individuals around the world. Recently, this is something we have seen in the assassination of high-profile government officials and scientists which have taken place under the guise of fighting terrorism. The past 15 years have seen unprecedented rise in the use of drones by the USA, whereby countless civilian lives have been lost. The loss of life has been normalised as collateral in war. But there is another dangerous environment being created where illegal extrajudicial killings of senior members of various governments in locations and nations, that the USA is not at war with, are being normalised as a modus operandi for the USA. 

Professor Falk:

We meet at a time that is very appropriate for this theme, because it is the first anniversary of the killing of General Qasem Soleimani, a leading Iranian political figure, as well as the most respected military commander in the country and very much popular among the Iranian people. And it’s a very notable, highly visible example of state sanctioned murder because there was no effort to be discreet about this except this particular assassination. 

President Trump boasted about having succeeded in assassinating General Soleimani and some important companions with whom he was traveling. He, ironically, was in Iraq when struck by this drone attack and at the invitation of the Iraqi prime minister on a diplomatic mission to try to ease tensions with between Iran and Saudi Arabia. So, it was a multiple disruptive event that has a great deal of significance. First of all, it was the most high-profile use of this technique of political assassination since the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. 

[The assassination] was also a violation of Iraqi state sovereignty, and it would have been also a violation of Iranian sovereignty had the event occurred in Iran. 

The US and Iran are not in a state of war and therefore, this was a violation of the most fundamental kind, not only of sovereign rights, but of the basic charter, UN charter prohibition on the use of international force in situations other than self-defense. And there was a report by the UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial executions that focused on this incident arising from the killing of General Soleimani, and her conclusion was that this was an act of war, not only a violation of General Soleimani, the right to life, and the idea of respecting the sovereignty of other countries and certainly not acting without the consent of those countries.

Even if the consent had been given, it would not have immunized this kind of premeditated and deliberate murder of the sort that is really quite shocking in its character. President Trump in his justification, said two things, both of which were characteristically false. He first said that this was a necessary act because General Soleimani had intended to head operations that were dangerous to American diplomats in Iraq. He presented no proof and there was no indication that this was at all part of General Soleimani’s mission, which was a diplomatic mission, carried out on an intergovernmental basis. And the second really quite extraordinary contention of Trump was that General Soleimani was the most notorious terrorist and therefore, his execution in this manner was justified as a counter terrorist act. Anyone that is familiar with General Soleimani’s career and role would know that he was, if anything, the leading counterterrorist in the entire region of the Middle East. He had directed with great skill and effectiveness in the struggle against ISIS or Daesh and is widely felt to be responsible for its defeat and limitation. In essence, General Soleimani was a counterterrorist resource of the most important kind. And the fact of claiming the opposite suggests how misleading state propaganda can become in the context of this sort of behavior. So, what I think one is confronting here, is a new kind of warfare in the world in which a new technology associated with drones that are becoming more sophisticated and available to more countries are able to inflict destructive strikes on targeted individuals with no risk of casualties.

It is important to mention that targeted killing of this kind of political assassinations really goes back to the role of the CIA during the Cold War, where political assassination was used as a target, secretly carried out with deniability and an effort to disguise the source of how this kind of political murder was carried out. 

The most spectacular example was probably Che Guevara back in 1965 who was killed with CIA assistance. He was captured in Bolivia and then executed with the complicity of the president of Bolivia at that time. The US repeatedly tried to assassinate Fidel Castro, head of state in Cuba, and also participated in the assassination of the Dam Brothers who were the leaders of South Vietnam in the early period of the Vietnam War in 1963. There is a history of more than half a century of this kind of behavior in which have political assassination becomes a preferred instrument of a kind of war.

It’s not exactly the traditional war of military forces confronting one another, but it is a form of political violence that not only ignores sovereign rights, but also the human rights of the targeted person who is being eliminated without any kind of due process or evidence or any kind of protection of that person’s right to life. One feature of the killing of General Soleimani is that he was a not part of an anti-state political movement. Osama bin Laden was the head of al-Qaida. 

And even though that was also, in my judgment, an unlawful use of force, it was at least a use of force directed against an organization that did not have any claims of sovereign rights. In the case of Soleimani, not only was he a revered and leading personality in Iran, but he was a political figure very close to the supreme guide of the country. This could be taken as an act of war that would have engaged Iran had it chose to respond in kind in a chain of behavior that could have led to a catastrophic war in the entire region, which is already suffering from a variety of chaotic circumstances brought about by Western, primarily US and Israeli interventions and use of force. 

Israel, as well as the US has been a practitioner of this kind of political murder. It has for a long time in a variety of countries, relied on Mossad, its secret equivalent to the CIA, to carry out these kinds of executions in foreign countries. It eliminated political opponents and it’s eliminated those that it feels are politically engaged in with groups that it designates as engaged in armed resistance to the Israeli occupation and domination of the Palestinian people. 

It executed the leading figure in Hamas quite a long time ago and more recently has targeted other Hamas figures living as private citizens. There is a pattern here that suggests a new type of imperial warfare.

The 9/11 attacks on the United States did create a new kind of confrontation between a non-state actor that could organize and strike from any place on the planet, potentially. And that created a sense that to deal with this sort of new security threat, it was justifiable to attack those sites where this sort of movement of political extremist movement operated, especially in situations where the territorial government was unable or unwilling to address the threat. What one really has had initiated, both through the Israeli response to Palestinian resistance and search for the realization of their basic rights and in relation to the kind of movement that al-Qaida represented ISIS to some extent succeeded them in represented in the region. They challenge to the postcolonial presence of the United States threat the Islamic world.

These two kinds of resistance is the resistance to Israeli domination of the Palestinians, converting their own the Palestinian homeland into a country where they become the enemy and the stranger. This effort by the United States to protect interests in oil and Israel and non-proliferation through establishing its military presence in the region, seeking regime change of governments that it didn’t feel were friendly to Western interests. 

It is not only the US and Israel. We saw the notorious case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian and leading journalist who was executed in a barbaric fashion in the Turkish consulate in Istanbul while he was there trying to procure a marriage license. 

This kind of murder sanctioned by the state, state sponsored terrorism, has fallen beneath the radar of the UN. It seemed helpless to do anything effective except to clarify the legal and political character of these events. The geopolitical horizons are such that the US and Israel have not been effectively challenged in the reliance on such tactics. So, it really poses a world order emergency. 

Say, how does one address this kind of technology? That and lack of accountability for carrying out these kind of drone strikes where there is no real opportunity for retaliation except by escalating conflict and risking war as a consequence. 

There were efforts in the United States at the as in the course of the Cold War, to challenge the right of the CIA, to engage in practices such as targeted assassinations or torture in overseas black sites, so that this is not something new as far as the assassinations are concerned. What is new is the fact the conflict being increasingly carried on by reliance on drone technology and by efforts to find individuals in hostile countries that can be eliminated as a way of both weakening the capacity of that country to function effectively and to demoralize and antagonize it. 

Not only was General Soleimani killed at the outset of 2020, but nine months later, Israel apparently was responsible for the targeted killing of Iran’s most senior nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, on the ground in Iran with a remotely exploded munition of some sort. This was a clear violation of Iranian sovereignty. An individual who, although he had some connection with the Iranian military, was essentially a scientist who was not the first time that Israel engaged in such behavior. 

They claim they were that their relationship with Iran entitles them to act in this fashion because they’re in what they called a virtual state of war. But this is a one-sided war. Israel has not suffered any consequences from Iranian efforts to destroy targets, either persons or property in Israel. It represents part of a broader effort to destabilize this political situation in Iran and shows the weakness of the international institutions and international law. 

This whole relationship of treating state related individuals as appropriate targets and not considering that to be an act of war in violation of the UN charter is something extremely damaging to the quality of world order, as is the failure of the UN to be able to do anything effective in response. 

It is one thing to condemn the human rights violation involved in such a state sanctioned or state sponsored murder of this sort. It is another thing to prevent political violence by one state against another. And that is really the whole mission of the U.N. was a war prevention mission. To look the other way when acts of this sort are committed seems to me quite shocking. When a leader like President Trump takes credit for committing this kind of state sanctioned murder, he should be subject to criminal indictment. 

Iran has issued a warrant for his arrest under governmental authority and has sought to enlist Interpol in securing the cooperation of police forces around the world in securing his arrest and eventual extradition for indictment and prosecution in Iraq. It is doubtful whether this kind of effort will bring success, but it does what would be a legitimate way of holding individuals and governments accountable for [such] violations. 

Can civil society do something effective by calling attention to this kind of behavior? I think civil society and human rights NGOs have been very important in prohibiting torture as a regular instrument of state power. They have not been altogether successful by any means, but they have exerted significant influence. But so far, the idea of political assassinations has been in this gray zone between war and peace and have basically been validated to by the media, mainstream media as part of anti-terrorism. 

It is not accidental that Trump, in addressing objections to the Soleimani assassination, relied on a completely fallacious anti-terrorist rationalization for carrying out this violent act. 

What seems to be of importance is to try to bring drone technology under some kind of international regulatory regime. It is posing great dangers by not only by its use in a variety of countries, but by the United States and other governments have begun to use it. It could actually create a chaotic global situation if a lot more non-state actors gain access to this technology.

If you think of 9/11 as carried out by these hijackings of planes in the United States, you can imagine the havoc that would have been would have resulted had the attacks been carried out by drones. But that’s exactly what the US has been doing in Afghanistan, Yemen and several other sites where it feels that hostile elements are at work opposing US interests in the world. There is a world order challenge one hopes can be addressed now and more moderate governing process in the US. 

It has to also deal with the way in which Israel has carried out these kind of terrorist operations. That is not to overlook the fact that some governments have used targeted methods to assassinate their enemies, including Putin’s Russia and to today’s Philippines and other dictatorial and autocratic governments have dealt with their own opponents in this way.

Unfortunately, in the killing of General Soleimani, the liberal Western press did accept part of Trump’s rationale. They did not look beneath the surface of the contention that Soleimani was a terrorist because it is true that he reinforced resistance to the American occupation of Iraq and that resulted in the death of some American armed forces. But that was a way of conducting a war of resistance against an occupation and against an attack on a country that had not been authorised by the UN was an act of aggression by the United States; resistance to aggression is something that is within the rights of the people and should be respected. We need an educational process as well as a political process, so as to understand what constitutes legitimate resistance and legitimate political activity. 

Professor Falk ended with stating, targeted killing of individuals in third party countries lacking political consent to violation of severing rights is in a poling human tragedy and a crime against humanity. 

Massoud Shadjareh:  

For a very long time, we have been sleepwalking into sort of assassination as a tool. This was to some extent legitimized by the use of drones in Afghanistan at the time of George W. Bush and then at the time of Obama. And unfortunately, matters are getting worse. One of the arguments that is being used is that there is an admission that there are civilian casualties, and the figures are being put something in region of 75 percent. 

But the reality is that a 100 percent of the people who are being killed are innocent because none of them are being taken to court. None of them have been presented with accusation. None of them had had the opportunity to defend themselves. So, we have had the arrogance of new colonial powers using these tools to be judge, jury and executioner, and they are creating havoc. One of the excuses used is that this contributes to peace and tranquility around the world. 

The reality is that we are seeing more and more a sort of chaos and the destruction of the civil society and institutions in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and places like Libya, Syria, and actually has created more creation of groups like Daesh. 

When Professor Falk was dealing with the issue of what has happened in the recent months and recent years in Iran and the assassination of Sardar Soleimani, it is very clear that the overwhelming majority of people in that region, Iraq, Syria, Iran and beyond, have seen him as a savior, against Daesh, a savior against extreme sort of murderous groups. And so therefore, to actually assassinate him, it really is removes someone that [was] loved by people… his funeral was the biggest funeral in the whole world. There would never have been a funeral for such a person, a large number of people weeping, crying, and standing for what support he had provided. 

That assassination and the assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and other scientists was not designed to create a more stable or peaceful environment. It was exactly the opposite. It was actually designed to provoke a war, a conflict, extend the conflict, increase the conflict. And it was for that reason that this sort of execution took place. 

By taking the General or personality of any country, the US or Iran or anywhere else, you do not change the history. You do not change the policy. You do not bring any change whatsoever. All you do, you provoke and create an all-out war. 

We need to differentiate between use of drone in the war environment, whether it is the war and use of these assassination, drones and other assassination at the time of peace by international law. 

There is a lot of difference between these two aspects. 

We hear all the time from the international community that they are waiting to hear, to wait, to see what Iran is going to do. But the fact is this, what is the international community is going to do? This is not just the entire relationship between Iran and the United States or Israel, and indeed not even between Iran and the West. 

Assassinating to provoke the other side, assassinating unlawfully, individuals who are innocent by international definition, then we are actually going to go down. The route of this becomes acceptable to once becomes acceptable to then is going to be used by everyone. And then we are going to have instead of international law and the relationship, we’re going to have the law of jungle. This is exactly the direction that we are going because of the silence of the international community and UN in particular. 

We need to increase pressure on US to address this issue promptly. They are going to be the instrument that legitimizes this to take place. What we are seeing is the role of Islamophobia in legitimizing this behavior because the overwhelming majority of those who are being targeted and assassinated unlawfully around the world are Muslims. The international community is less concerned than they would have been if this assassination was targeting white Europeans. 

We have a responsibility to urge and put pressure on the international community to stop sleepwalking the whole of the world into this direction. 

Q&A

  • One of the questions referred to the mission of the United Nations having been one of preventing war. Some of these acts mentioned with the murder of Qasem Soleimani, is clearly not something that has been dealt with by the United Nations. 

Professor Falk: As far as the UN doing something directly about this, one has to understand that the UN is an organization that is set up to be unable to act effectively against the five permanent members Security Council, of which the US is one. They have the legal authority, the constitutional authority, through their permanent membership in the Security Council and their right of veto to block any initiative that runs counter to their perceived national interests or geopolitical grand strategy. 

We can look to the UN as it is now constituted for more than an important but symbolic censure of the behavior of this sort. And that has been forthcoming in the UN Human Rights Council as a result of the report made by the special rapporteur on this subject matter, Agnes Chalamont, last July. It is an important report that clearly condemns this kind of political assassination and can and treats it in this case with respect to General Soleimani as an act of war. 

The UN is important to legitimate civil society militancy that can alone put pressure on governments, including the governments that are responsible for this behavior. But to look to the UN to solve the problems… is to pursue something that is a mission impossible at this point, because it really does not have the authority or the mandate to challenge geopolitical policies and practices of this sort. 

  • Iran has issued an arrest warrant… Is it worth pursuing when it is not going to bring results?  What is the point? 

Professor Falk: What it cannot do is probably deliver the body of Donald Trump to Iran for a criminal prosecution. What it can do is legitimate opposition and the criminalization of what he has done and point to the inadequacy of the international community’s capacity to address behavior of this sort. We cannot look with any kind of realistic hope to the UN or to the most powerful governments of the world.

The UN is valuable, but within very strict limits. What it can do is challenge behaviorally the geopolitical actions of leading states and their close friends or allies. It cannot condemn what Israel does, for instance, to the Palestinians, it can’t change the policies of Israel or the US toward the Palestinians. That has to come from global solidarity and resistance by the Palestinians and those that are supporting that. 

Shadjareh: I am quite convinced that we’re going to see other sort of accusations and other charges against Trump in the near future. We really need to create an environment that exposes the crimes he has been involved in. That is a very important position for the civil society to be involved in. We need to make sure wherever he goes, he is not going to be free to roam around; he should be identified by demonstrators, by others, and indeed put pressure on governments…  International law and the way that he has taken the United States and what he’s recently [show he] has become very arrogant. 

I think if you allow tyrants like him, like Netanyahu to actually get away with murder and creating havoc for perceived interests, then you are going to end up seeing them doing far more crimes. It is very important for the international community and civil society to actually draw these lines of criminality. 

  • What can civil society do on this issue with regards [to the issues discussed]; civil society do not have as much power as governments do?  

Professor Falk: It is a challenge to somehow crystallize effectively a mobilization of civil society that is alert about the importance of these developments. It is not only the killing of these individuals who are denied their fundamental human rights, but it is also letting loose on the world a kind of technology and normalization of systematic violence that is very threatening to the future of all of us. And it is giving way to these kinds of suppressed but very real Islamophobic tropes that allow this kind of behavior to go under the radar of moral outrage. 

One of the things that civil society is capable of doing, including in a country like the United States, is to raise this issue in such a way that governments do not have a green light to just use the word terrorist on the screen and carry out murders of innocent people. And not only innocent people, but people that have pursued distinguished and honorable careers. And in the case of General Soleimani, has been, as was pointed out, a treatment as a savior beloved by his people. 

And something that is it is a shocking abuse of power to have directed this kind of violence. And it was accentuated by the fact that he was on a peacekeeping mission at the very moment he was killed. He was trying to at the invitation of the prime minister of Iraq, trying to resolve a conflict and reduce tensions in ways that if they were not addressed, could spread even more violence in the region. It is significant that this assassination in Iraq has changed the Iraqi attitude toward the whole American occupation and given rise to very important popular mobilization of Iraqi civil society, demanding that the US remove its troops and the Iranians. 

The Iraqi parliament has indicated support for such a rejection of the American presence, even though supposedly the Americans came to Iraq to liberate it from an autocratic leader, but instead has produced chaos and violence in the country. And in a way that is the very opposite of what it’s claiming or what it claimed to be doing when it first attacked without any UN support into that. 

  • The amount of escalation that had actually taken place under Obama with regards to the drone attacks have taken place around the world. Now, Joe Biden has come in as president… Are you hopeful for the future? 

Professor Falk: I am hopeful in certain limited spheres. I think Biden will be a great improvement domestically in terms of health policy in the midst of this COVID crisis. He will be less aggressive and polarizing the country, encouraging its most violent white supremacist elements. And in that way, I would be encouraged. I’m worried about his foreign policy because I think he is likely to restore the kind of alliance structure that existed during the Cold War and re-establish a geopolitical agenda that risks a new Cold War, possibly directed at China and maybe Russia, too. That has a lot of implications for the future. Among them is the decline of the UN in terms of its international and domestic behavior is tied to this persistent overinvestment in the military. And it is hard to exaggerate foreign security threats, including threats from the Islamic world, as a way of justifying keeping its budget, military budget at this astronomical level during peacetime where there are no real threats to the American homeland. It is a purely imperial policy driven by war, industry, special interests and a whole variety of other kind of forces. But the net result is this kind of military, the reliance on a military solution for political problems. That has been the essence of US foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, but [also] worldwide. It is increasingly so because the US has lost its legitimacy as a kind of global leader that it enjoyed after World War Two. Since the end of the Cold War, I think has accentuated both the pursuit of what I call predatory capitalism, plus global militarism, and therefore has very little capacity for solving the problems of the world in a constructive manner. Having just one more point, which is having said that, I do think that Biden will be much more forthcoming on issues like climate change and on multilateralism generally than was true during the Trump period. 

Shadjareh: I totally agree with Professor. I think there is going to be a change of our domestic policies and international policies. We shouldn’t hold our breath. Unfortunately, the geopolitical and financial interests of the army industry and others is going to force them into similar projects and similar direction as we have seen in past, as it was in the time of Obama. Let us not forget, Libya happened at the time of Obama, and Syria and Yemen, so we should not be holding our breath. 

Trump just did not give any sort of time to any other opinion other than what he wanted to do. And we have seen that unleashed even when it comes to the elections in the United States. He has this alternative truth and he pursued it to the end. I do not think we have the same issue with the new administration. 

I think, therefore, it puts a lot of pressure, a lot of responsibility on civil society and the rest of us. How we could convince the international community that the direction that we are going in is actually would lead us to chaos and it will be detrimental to our lives. 

When it comes to the issue of assassination and targeted killing, we need to actually look at not just the cases of Sardar Soleimani. We need to look at all the cases. If this becomes further legitimized around the world, we going to have other state players getting involved in this. We are going to have a situation and that is going to affect the perceived interests of not just people in the Muslim world, but everywhere else. 

It will be very difficult to say that it is okay if you do it in Middle East or here and there, but you could not do it in Europe or elsewhere. That argument is going to be as sort of not obtainable. What we need to do is to convince that when we talk against assassination and targeted killing, we are talking about every single human being and we should condemn every state who actually gets involved in this. And therefore, those of us who are going to unite, we actually need to unite on those bases, not just on the on a basis of one or two personalities which have been forcibly removed from our midst in this barbaric way. 

Professor Falk: I think Biden is more dangerous than Trump, and that is because I fear that he is more of a captive of what I call the American version of the deep state. And the deep state in the US is the permanent part of the intelligence and military bureaucracy that sees the future of American foreign policy through this bipartisan consensus that existed during the Cold War for decades. And they now want to resurrect it to confront China and maybe Russia, too, and that’s very dangerous. 

Trump was a sufficient maverick for the reasons that were well expressed that he didn’t want he rejected. That’s why those people, the security elite in America, opposed Trump’s selection in 2016 and again in 2020 because he was breaking this kind of global militarist alliance that created this permanent international security threat that in turn allowed the military budget in peacetime to stay higher than the next 10 countries combined. It’s an extraordinary diversion of resources when the US infrastructure, as the covered crisis revealed, is deteriorating at a very rapid rate, and it has handled this crisis worse than any other important country in the world. 

Other topics discussed during the Q&A include the actions of Israel and Iran’s stance on the death of Qasem Soleimani.

Watch the full webinar: