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Legality and morality

May 4, 2011

As new details surface of the US operation that killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the legality of the mission is being debated in Germany. Many are also critical of rejoicing - they say it is inappropriate.

Crowds celebrate on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House
Questionable reactionImage: AP

A feeling of relief at the death of Osama bin Laden among German leaders and lawmakers has increasingly been replaced by a debate about how far the world is entitled to rejoice at the news.

Many Germans have felt some distaste at the flag-waving, raucous US reaction to bin Laden's death. They share the relief over his death, but do not agree that unrestrained celebration of his killing is appropriate.

Germany's Protestant Church (EKD) said the relief with which the news of bin Laden's death had been widely received was understandable but that the killing was not a cause for rejoicing.

EKD spokesman Reinhard Mawick said Germany's more cautious reaction has been typical of the country's anti-militaristic post-World War Two mentality.

Applause is not appropriate

It is not just the rejoicing that many Germans find inappropriate: "Chancellor Angela Merkel's choice of words was unfitting for a German politician," Mawick told Deutsche Welle. The Chancellor had said on Monday that she was pleased that bin Laden had been killed by U.S. forces.

Angela Merkel at lectern
More than reliefImage: dapd

Her remark promptly met with criticism, even from within her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party.

Siegrfried Kauder, the CDU head of the parliamentary legal committee, branded her choice of words as "medieval thoughts of revenge."

Ingrid Fischbach, deputy head of the party's parliamentary group, said that, despite the fact that bin Laden for years masterminded countless terror attacks across the globe, " from a Christian point of view, it is hardly acceptable to express joy about a person's targeted killing."

Other German government officials had reacted more cautiously than Merkel. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle pointedly avoided using the word "killed", saying he was glad bin Laden had "been stopped".

Morality and legality

There has also been mounting concern over the legality of the mission

While the US Attorney General has defended the action as lawful, former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt told German TV it was clearly a violation of international law.

There is in fact an "alarming lack of legislation" as to when a targeted killing may be acceptable, Markus Kotzur, an international law expert at Leipzig University, told Deutsche Welle. But judging by what is known about the details of the US commando action so far, Kotzur said that there is little reason to believe the US action runs foul of international law.

US flag and sign that reads: Justice at last
The UN wants full details of the mission against bin LadenImage: picture alliance/landov

"The commando unit made sure that Osama bin Laden was targeted directly," he said. "There was no bomb attack, no attack from an unmanned drone or anything similar that could have resulted in the killing of innocent people.

Ruprecht Polenz, who heads the foreign policy committee in the German parliament, pointed out that even the UN Security Council has welcomed bin Laden's death. "The international community's supreme body would hardly welcome action that was contrary to international law," he said.

Captured and tried

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has meanwhile urged the United States to give the United Nations full details about bin Laden's killing. And in Brussels, European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom wrote in a blog: "It would have been preferred to see Osama bin Laden before a court."

That view was echoed in European newspaper editorials.

"We Europeans would have preferred bin Laden to be captured and tried because executions are contrary to our culture. Yet America - where the death penalty is in force - needed to strike the man who struck it so heavily," said Italy's La Repubblica daily.

"It would have been better if the Americans had arrested him and brought him to trial," Rheinische Post newspaper said in an editorial. "Then, justice would really have been served."

Author: Dagmar Breitenbach
Editor: Michael Lawton