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Drone attacks and the killing of Anwar al-Awlaqi: legal issues

Published Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Anwar al-Awlaqi, a dual US-Yemeni citizen described as the “leader of external operations for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”, was killed by a US drone attack in Yemen on 30 September 2011. Whether this was legal under international or US law is a matter of considerable debate.

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Anwar al-Awlaqi, a dual US-Yemeni citizen described as the “leader of external operations for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula”, was killed by a US drone attack in Yemen on 30 September 2011. Whether this was legal under international or US law is a matter of considerable debate.

The main arguments in favour of the legality of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaqi are that:

• Al-Awlaqi was taking a direct part in hostilities against the US and therefore could lawfully be targeted under International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

• The US was allowed to use force in Yemen because Yemen had consented.

• Or, alternatively, it was a lawful act of self-defence because Yemen was unwilling or unable to prevent future attacks on the US.

• Al-Awlaqi’s human rights were not breached because he was not within the US’s jurisdiction.

• Al-Awlaqi’s constitutional rights to due process were met.

The main arguments against its legality are that:

• The US is not engaged in an armed conflict in Yemen, where the killing took place, so IHL did not apply.

• It did not meet the requisite conditions to be lawful self-defence.

• It was an extrajudicial killing that breached international human rights law.

• Al-Awlaqi’s constitutional rights to due process were not met.

Commons Briefing papers SN06165

Author: Arabella Lang

Topics: International law, Middle East, Military operations, North America, Terrorism

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