Assassination, theft and criminal governments

A lot of noise is being made in Britain about the use of UK passports in the assassination of a Hamas official in Dubai, allegedly by Israel’s Mossad secret service. Not much noise is being made about the actual assassination, which seems to be regarded as par for the course for Israel.

I don’t want to get deeply into the rights and wrongs of the killing. But it raises again the question of when it is acceptable for governments to break the law in friendly states. Governments have been doing a lot of lawbreaking in recent years, not just prompted by the so-called war on terror. Most recently, the illegal purchase by German secret services of Liechtensteinian and Swiss bank data and the subsequent planned purchase of that data by the British tax office – receiving stolen goods – added less serious crimes than the kidnapping and murder that had been going on.

(My view of the assassination: either 1. Israel is at war with the Palestinians, or at least the militant groups, in which case fair enough to kill them – but they should not be labelled as terrorists, if it is a war, or treated as terrorists by other states; or 2. it isn’t at war, in which case extra-judicial killing is just another word for state-sponsored murder, reducing Israel to the level of the terrorists. Either way, it seems unlikely that more tit-for-tat killings will make any serious difference to Israel’s security – particularly if they damage relations with allies, as Daniel Korski at the Spectator pointed out.)

Should we have any respect for the laws of other countries, beyond what is required to maintain relations? It depends what their laws are, and how they are enforced.

In the case of US drone strikes on Pakistan and Yemen, for example, it is arguable that neither state is in a position to enforce its laws, or willing to do so even if capable, so it is valid to take the law into your own hands (although the resentment caused by the scale of civilian casualties probably renders the attacks pointless by encouraging more people to take up arms against the west – kidnap and trial would be better). The same goes for the Israeli assassination: Dubai would never have agreed to extradite Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.

A similar argument applies to the theft or purchase of stolen bank data, while trying to track down tax avoiders. Switzerland is unwilling to help trace German or British tax-dodgers, so Germany and Britain have to take the law into their own hands.

There is a huge element of realpolitik, though. Bullying Liechtenstein or Switzerland is possible, partly because everyone else in the world also thinks their bank secrecy laws are wrong, and partly because they are in no position to retaliate. Bullying Yemen or Pakistan is easy for the US. But even when IRA fundraisers were operating openly in New York and south Boston to raise money for terrorist attacks in the UK, Britain would not consider kidnapping them when US extradition was blocked, because the US would have regarded such a move as outrageous and would have been able to retaliate.

Fundamentally, like all international law, it isn’t really about the rule of law: it is about what countries think they can get away with. Britain and other European countries may be able to use the passports row with Israel to exert diplomatic pressure, but they should accept that Israel’s use of the passports – although not the execution – is on a par with similar law-breaking they are happy to carry out themselves.

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Christopher Cook is an FT editorial writer. Before joining the FT in 2008 as a Peter Martin Fellow, he worked for three years for the Conservative party.

Lorien Kite is deputy comment editor, a post he took up in 2009 after four years as a commissioning editor on the analysis page. He joined the FT in 2000.

Ian Holdsworth became assistant features editor in 2009 and was previously chief production journalist for the features pages.