Terrorism or not, assassination of Iranian scientist another flagrant violation of international law

Outraged Iranians protest the assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

With the perpetrator of last week’s assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist still unidentified, a debate is raging as to whether the brazen daylight car-bombing should legally qualify as an act of terrorism. Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief of Technology Review, has asserted that the bombing was not intended to incite fear in the population, and should therefore be considered assassination, not terrorism.

International law professor Kevin Jon Heller weighed in on the question in a blog post today at Opinio Juris, arguing that under the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, last week’s assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan would qualify. Although the international community has yet to agree on a general definition of terrorism, he points out that Article 2 of the Terrorist Bombing Convention defines an act of terrorism as follows:

1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person unlawfully and intentionally delivers, places, discharges or detonates an explosive or other lethal device in, into or against a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system or an infrastructure facility:

(a) With the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or

(b) With the intent to cause extensive destruction of such a place, facility or system, where such destruction results in or is likely to result in major economic loss.

While under this definition, the bombing last week in Tehran would seem to qualify as “terrorism,” the whole debate is arguably a bit academic and beside the point. Even under the U.S. government’s definition in the Patriot Act, the bombing that killed Ahmadi-Roshan would certainly qualify as terrorism.

Section 802 of the Patriot Act define acts of terrorism as “activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life … that (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”

But of course, this is the U.S. government’s definition terrorism within the United States. When the question is whether an act of violence in a foreign country is an act of terrorism, different rules apply and can be altered as needed.

There are in fact myriad definitions of terrorism that can shift and change depending on the political whims of the day. One of the clearest examples of this was when the U.S. government removed the Kosovo Liberation Army from its list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” in 1998.

The State Department de-listed the KLA that year as the U.S. was attempting to increase pressure on Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and the Clinton administration was lobbying France to do the same. From then on, the United States maintained diplomatic relations with the KLA’s leaders and spoke of them not as terrorists, but as freedom fighters justly resisting oppression.

As this instance makes clear, “terrorism” is a loaded term that has more to do with political realities than any objective realities.

This is why the question of whether last week’s killing of Ahmadi-Roshan should qualify as terrorism is a bit of a red herring. Whether “terrorism” or not, the bombing was obviously an assassination, and as the Harvard Law Review pointed out in 2006 in an article about the new usage of the preferred euphemism “targeted killing”:

Black’s Law Dictionary defines assassination as ‘the act of deliberately killing someone especially a public figure, usually for hire or for political reasons.’ If termed ‘assassination,’ then attacks on leaders have been construed as prohibited by Article 23b of the Hague Convention of 1899, which outlaws ‘treacherous’ attacks on adversaries, and by the Protocol Addition to the Geneva Convention of 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflict (Protocol I), which prohibits attacks that rely on ‘perfidy.’

Even the U.S. government has acknowledged that these types of assassinations would be illegal under international conventions.

Back in October, when the United States accused the Iranian government of being involved in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the alleged assassination attempt “constitutes a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law.”

Vice President Joe Biden said on NBC, “Every nation in the world, when they learn the facts of this, will be outraged that (Iran) would violate such an international norm, in addition to obviously being a crime to assassinate anybody, and in the process probably have killed scores of Americans.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Oct. 12, “This kind of reckless act undermines international norms and the international system. Iran must be held accountable for its actions.”

U.S. Representative Peter King, Chairman of the House Homeland Security, called the alleged Iranian plot an “act of war.”

The response to the assassination of Ahmadi-Roshan has been a bit more muted.

“I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran,” Clinton told reporters last week when asked about the attack.

Victoria Nuland, Clinton’s spokeswoman, said the State Department condemned “any assassination or attack on an innocent person and we express our sympathies to the family.”

Some prominent politicians, however, praised the assassination, with Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum saying that killing Iranian scientists is “wonderful,” as it sends a message to those who work on Iran’s nuclear program that they “are not safe.”

Santorum’s comments came just days after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated frankly that Iran is not currently attempting to develop nuclear weapons.

“Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us,” Panetta told “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer. “And our red line to Iran is to not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.”

In the same segment, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked whether the U.S. “should take out their nuclear capabilities.”

Dempsey replied that “I certainly want them to believe that that’s the case.”

So, within a one-minute segment on a nationally broadcast television program, the Secretary of Defense concedes that Iran is not trying to develop a nuclear weapon, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issues an ambiguous threat to bomb the country nonetheless.

This veiled threat could be seen as violating the UN Charter, which states:

All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

It should also be noted that Iran is within its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, as it claims to be doing and as Leon Panetta recently acknowledged. Entering into force in 1970, the NPT recognizes the right of five countries — China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States — to possess nuclear weapons, conditional upon eventual disarmament, and the right of other signatories to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, conditional upon their non-acquisition of nuclear weapons.

The treaty is essentially a mutual promise between nuclear-armed countries to rid themselves of these weapons and non-nuclear states to abstain from attaining them:

Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

The U.S., the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons in war, continues to lead the world in stockpiling them. It has also detonated the lion’s share of nuclear tests, as this YouTube video illustrates:

In its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the U.S. essentially admitted that it has no intention of ever ridding itself of nuclear weapons. “As long as nuclear weapons exist,” the Review states, the United States will sustain safe, secure, and effective nuclear forces.”

It therefore would seem that the United States is shirking its end of the bargain in the NPT to work towards full nuclear disarmament.

For its part, Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, and has the support of a good portion of the international community. Last November, the the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), an international grouping of 120 member states, reiterated its support for Tehran’s nuclear rights.

In a statement to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Board of Directors, NAM called for creating a nuclear-arms free zone in the Middle East, urging that an agreement must be signed by world nations under which any attack on nuclear facilities is banned.

Iran now claims to have evidence the U.S. was behind the killing of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan in Tehran last week, and is seeking the support of NAM in responding to the incident.

Iran’s state TV reported that the Iranian foreign ministry had, in a letter handed to the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, said: “We have reliable documents and evidence that this terrorist act was planned, guided and supported by the CIA.”

In a letter last week to Khaled Abdelrahman Shamaa, the representative of the NAM chairman to the UN office in Vienna, Iran called on the 120-member international body to take proper measures to prevent the assassination of nuclear scientists.

The letter outlined the need for the implementation of proper strategies to prevent the assassination of scientists anywhere, but particularly in developing countries.


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One response to “Terrorism or not, assassination of Iranian scientist another flagrant violation of international law”

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