A new and dangerous escalation of assassination and extra-judicial killing has become a tool in global conflict.

The Australian government should condemn this escalation. And as a well regarded ally of the United States we have the right to insist that no Australian facilities will be used to conduct assassination air strikes on another country’s sovereign territory.

The strike was initially reported as a successful strike by the United States which had killed Bin Laden’s second in command. But the ‘intelligence’ that the assassination attempt was based on was tragically wrong. It now seems clear that a majority of those killed were innocent men, women and children. There are some muddled reports that four ‘foreigners’ were also killed but it seems clear the intended target of the attack was not amongst the casualties.

The Pakistan strike follows the use of similar attacks by the United States on other alleged terrorists by remote controlled air strikes.

The government of Pakistan appears not to have been informed about the attack. Despite being the United State’s close ally in operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda, Pakistan has said it did not consent to the assassination attempt and has protested against the air attack on its territory.

Pakistan’s attitude is hardly surprising. Imagine how Australians would react to a US air strike on alleged terrorists in any Australian city — on the scale of devastation seen in Pakistan.

It might seem unthinkable, but the fact that the US could attack its ally, Pakistan, suggests Australia’s status as a US ally gives us no immunity against assassination attempts by remote controlled air strikes. Before this new and dangerous escalation of extra-judicial killing becomes thinkable, the Australian government needs rock solid guarantees from the United States that it will not bring that tactic onto Australian soil.

Botched assassination risks support for the fight against terrorism. The strike in Pakistan, in which 18 civilians were killed, can only weaken the government of one of the few Islamic countries to be on the frontline in the international fight against terrorism. A change of leadership in Pakistan at this time, particularly if replaced by a leader sympathetic to extremists, could put at risk that country’s support for counter-terrorism and bolster recruitment to extremist groups in that region.

Dangerous ammunition

The strike also undermines agreed and largely successful principles of international behaviour, in particular the basic principle that countries respect each others’ territorial sovereignty.

Silence and a lack of official Australian condemnation of the strike will signal an acceptance by the Howard Government of the US’s right to disregard rules of international behaviour — rules both countries insist others abide by. Any double standards provide dangerous ammunition to those, including al Qaeda supporters, already critical of what they see as the excessive use of power globally by the US.

Targeted assassinations have been conducted by many powerful countries and, while unlawful, no one should pretend such innocence of history as to believe assassination and extra judicial killing can ever be entirely done away with. But extra-judicial killing is always wrong and usually counter-productive.

This new form of crude assassination should be stopped in its tracks. Even in wartime we have rules of war. It may not be possible to stop warfare — but we can stop the use of poison gas. If we can’t stop all assassination Australia should at least put its views clearly to its ally that air strikes against suspects in third countries are repugnant and impermissible means of armed action.

A missile launched from an unmanned plane, on the basis of information from sometimes unreliable sources, cannot achieve the level of precision which might, only barely, ever justify this form of Judge Dredd law enforcement. This is the death penalty, without judicial sanction, without trial, inflicted on the innocent.

Duncan Kerr SC is Labor Federal Member for Denison.