FP Explainer

Is It Legal to Try to Kill Qaddafi?


NATO has escalated its bombing campaign around the Libyan capital of Tripoli in an effort to bring the conflict to a close and has destroyed one of Muammar al-Qaddafi's favored retreats. A senior NATO military official told CNN on June 9 that Qaddafi was a legitimate target of the bombing campaign, but declined to comment on whether he was being deliberately targeted. Is it legal to deliberately try to kill the leader of a sovereign state?

The law is vague. The long-standing reluctance of militaries to engage in the targeted killing of heads of state is based more on custom than codified regulation. (It's not really in the interest of presidents and prime ministers for that sort of thing to become common practice.)

The closest thing in international law to a ban on assassination is the 1907 Hague Convention on the laws of war, which prohibits signatories from attempting "To kill or wound treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army." Treachery is a tough thing to prove in court and in any case, might not apply to this situation: Qaddafi has been given ample warning and a clear message that NATO and the United Nations want him out.

Moreover, Security Council Resolution 1973 authorizing the Libya intervention allows U.N. member states to "take all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya." While coalition forces haven't yet declared Qaddafi an official target as part of these measures, they've also made it clear that his personal safety is not a consideration. As British Defense Minister Liam Fox put it, "There's a difference between someone being a legitimate target and whether you would go ahead with targeting." The official who spoke with CNN described Qaddafi as being part of the "command and control" structure of the Libyan military, meaning that taking him out would fall under the mandate of protecting civilians.

What about U.S. law? An executive order signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 -- updating an earlier order by President Gerald Ford -- states that "No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination." (The order followed embarrassing revelations of CIA plots to kill foreign leaders such as Congolese President Patrice Lumumba and Cuban leader Fidel Castro.) But the order doesn't define "assassination" and, in truth, hasn't had much effect on U.S. policy. Since 9/11, the United States has repeatedly targeted senior al Qaeda leaders for assassination, culminating in May's raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Even before the war on terror began, the targeting of foreign leaders was hardly unheard of. Reagan himself targeted one of Qaddafi's compounds during airstrikes on Libya in 1986, killing the Libyan leader's adopted daughter. U.S. airstrikes targeted Saddam Hussein's compounds during the early days of the Iraq war.

The deliberately vague "command and control" language is also not new. In 1999, following an airstrike on Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's Belgrade residence, Eric Holder then U.S. deputy attorney general, argued that it did not violate the rule against assassination: "Bombs are dropped on command and control facilities," he said in a news conference quoted by Canada's Globe and Mail. "There has not been any attempt on the part of the United States to target any particular individual."

So while the killing of foreign leaders is generally frowned upon and rarely admitted to, Qaddafi probably shouldn't be counting on the law to protect him.

Thanks to Micah Zenko, fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Matthew Waxman, associate professor at Columbia Law School.


FP Explainer

Why Is It So Hard to Figure Out What's Causing Europe's E. Coli Outbreak?

Because people don't keep their vegetables around to study.

Scientists say the outbreak of E. coli in Europe that has already killed at least 17 people and sickened over 1,500 may turn out to be the deadliest ever. The bacteria combine a deadly toxin with a special binding agent, or "glue," that sticks to a patient's intestines. While it's likely that the strain was carried by contaminated vegetables in Germany, the exact source is still unknown. Spanish cucumbers were originally suspected but have now been ruled out. Why is it so difficult to pinpoint the source of this outbreak?

Two main reasons: One, this particular strain of E. coli is particularly difficult to study; two, vegetables don't tend to stick around for very long.

There are many strains of Escherichia coli bacteria, most of them harmless when ingested. But some produce a dangerous Shiga toxin that can cause severe abdominal pain, hemorrhagic diarrhea, and even an acute syndrome that can cause kidney failure. The most commonly observed dangerous strain of E. coli is O157. This strain can easily be detected either in a stool sample from a patient or from the contaminated food using a culture medium called sorbitol-MacConkey agar. Unlike other, non-harmful strains of E. coli, O157 ferments the agar, producing observable white spots.

The strain currently infecting people in Europe, however, is a version of O104, meaning that it doesn't produce a reaction in the agar and is much more difficult to observe. Although rare, O104 has been seen before: There was a small outbreak in Helena, Montana, in 1994. But the current outbreak is a much more dangerous variant of the strain, which has been labeled O104:H4 and has been seen only once before in a patient in South Korea in 2005. In addition to its other nasty qualities, the strain also appears to be highly resistant to several classes of antibiotics. 

Cattle are the most common carriers of E. coli, and the majority of outbreaks are the result of consumption of improperly cooked meat, contaminated with feces. However, a variety of other foods can carry the bacteria as well. There was an outbreak carried by a particular brand of apple cider in Maryland last year, which sickened about a dozen people, as well as the highly publicized Nestlé cookie dough outbreak of 2009, which sickened more than 60 people throughout the United States. (Both outbreaks were of the more common O157 strain.)

If, as is suspected, the strain making people ill in Europe is being carried by fresh produce, that's bad news for epidemiologists. Unlike meat, beverages, or packaged products, people don't tend to keep leftovers of fresh fruits and vegetables around long after they've had the original meal that made them sick. That means fewer samples for researchers to study in order to determine exactly which product consumers should be avoiding.

This has already had economic consequences -- Spanish farmers have seen their export market drop precipitously, for instance. There are political ramifications, too: Russia has already issued a blanket ban on vegetable imports from the European Union.

If an answer isn't found soon, this food fight might just be getting started.

Thanks to Shannon Manning, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at Michigan State University.

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