UNITED NATIONS — The UN's chief human rights official led calls by rights activist organizations on Tuesday for Washington to explain whether U.S. forces lawfully killed Osama bin Laden.
The request by Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, came even as the world body continues to falter over its multi-year bid to define terrorism.
Pillay's bid also appeared to contradict the position held by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who on Monday described the U.S. action as a "watershed moment in our common global fight against terrorism."
The mixed messages are likely to heighten critics' claims that the UN's human rights apparatus is frequently quick to probe for abuses by Western democracies — even as it appears to limit its criticism of some of the world's established human rights abuser states.
In an example of UN human rights scrutiny involving Canada, the UN's Working Group on People of African Descent announced this week it will visit the country May 16-20 to probe for discrimination against African-Canadians. In recent years the committee has visited the United States, Ecuador and Belgium — but shunned such destinations as Libya, where independent human rights groups such as UN Watch have said black Africans face persecution, and Sudan, where the United States has accused the Arab-led government of committing genocide in Darfur.
On the U.S. action in Pakistan Sunday, Pillay agreed that bin Laden was a "very dangerous man" who had acknowledged having "command responsibility for the most appalling acts of terrorism" — including the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States that killed almost 3,000. But she also said the United States had always "clearly stated they intended to arrest bin Laden if they could."
Admitting that taking bin Laden alive was "always going to be difficult," Pillay nevertheless signalled the United States needs to explain more about what happened in the compound.
"This was a complex operation and it would be helpful if we knew the precise facts surrounding his killing," Pillay said. "The United Nations has consistently emphasized that all counter-terrorism acts must respect international law."
Amnesty International said it was seeking "greater clarification" about what went on, while New York-based Human Rights Watch said "law enforcement" principles should have applied.
"If he wasn't shooting at the soldiers, the killing should be investigated," Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch Asia director, said in Bangkok at the launch of a report on Thailand.
"People are saying that justice has been done, but justice has not been done. Justice is when you arrest someone and put them on trial."
The White House on Tuesday scrambled to release a so-called "narrative" of the events leading to bin Laden's death after various government sources a day earlier suggested the al-Qaida leader had both been armed and used a woman as a human shield.
While the narrative said bin Laden had not been armed, it recounted a fierce firefight with others as the special operations forces fought their way to the compound's second and third floors, where the al-Qaida leader and family members were located. Bin Laden was also said to have offered resistance, while a woman identified as a wife lunged at the operatives, leading to her being wounded with a shot to the leg.
"There was concern bin Laden would oppose the . . . operation, and indeed he did resist," said Jay Carney, White House spokesman. "Bin Laden's wife rushed the U.S. assaulter, but was not killed. Bin Laden was then shot and killed."
Carney stated that "resistance does not require a firearm" after a reporter pressed him on how bin Laden could have posed a threat.
Speaking earlier, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the operation was "lawful, legitimate and appropriate in every way."
"The people who were responsible for that action both in the decision making and in the effecting of that decision, handled themselves, I think, quite well," he told the judiciary committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.
A U.S. executive order signed in 1981 prohibits the United States or anyone acting on its behalf from conducting assassinations, but U.S. officials have argued there is legal latitude to target individuals in an ongoing conflict — including the current one in which bin Laden himself declared war on the United States and other nations.
"The principles of distinction and proportionality that the U.S. applies are . . . implemented rigorously throughout the planning and execution of lethal operations to ensure that operations are conducted in accordance with all applicable law," Harold Koh, legal adviser at the U.S. State Department, told a meeting of the American Society of International Law last year.
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