This upcoming term, the Supreme Court will be trying its hand at international law. People around the world will be watching the United States’ highest court as the justices decide whether foreign victims of human rights abuses will be able to seek civil redress for their grievances in U.S. courts.
But cases of human rights abuses by the U.S. government itself indicate that we might not be ready to focus our efforts outside U.S. borders. If the United States is truly to be regarded as a guardian of human rights for all, we must not neglect cases in which our own government has acted questionably overseas.
The recent case of Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta, which is currently pending before the court, raises the question not merely of whether the United States can protect foreign individuals from human rights abuses by foreign actors, but whether they can protect their own citizens from U.S. government abuses.
The case involves a suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights in response to the alleged targeted killing of an American teenager in Yemen in 2011.
The teen, Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi, was sitting at an open-air restaurant when a U.S. drone strike killed him and six innocent bystanders, including al-Aulaqi’s teenage cousin. Not only did innocent civilians die as collateral damage in a U.S.-sponsored attack, but the target of the operation — a 16-year-old American citizen who had lived in Colorado until the age of seven — was deprived of any semblance of due process before being violently killed by his own government.
Regardless of any national security concerns or intelligence gathered, he should have had the opportunity to face his accusers in a court of law before being assassinated by his own government.
If we cannot protect our own citizens from arbitrary exhibitions of power, then how can we credibly claim to be the guardians of the rights of non-citizens abroad?
The fact that al-Aulaqi was not only an American citizen, but also a minor barely old enough to be tried in American adult courts, also reflects poorly on the government.
Of course, we cannot reasonably expect the government to cease targeted killings altogether. As unfavorable an idea as it is, targeted killing does play an important role in protecting our nation and its allies from dangerous foreign operatives.
Someone has to do the dirty work to protect our nation and our associated institutions abroad from attack, but we must ensure that such measures are invoked only as a last resort.
Al-Aulaqi was not so immediate a threat as to necessitate a targeted killing operation — especially an operation that cost six innocent bystanders their lives.
Furthermore, for the government to deprive one of its own from his Fifth Amendment right to due process of law is utterly unacceptable and flies in the face of everything America stands for as a nation.
Before using our judicial system to punish those abroad for their human rights infractions, we must first fix the flaws of our own system. If we are to maintain any credibility as a democratic nation and custodian of human rights, we must first look inward and end such barbaric actions as the killing of American citizens without due process of the law.
The Supreme Court’s impending case regarding human rights for foreign nationals is undoubtedly a step forward for the global preservation of human rights.
Cases such as the killing of al-Aulaqi, however, should make us question whether our government can legitimately adjudicate on these rights at all, or whether it would just be another empty promise and display of hypocrisy.
If those responsible for al-Aulaqi’s death are not held accountable by our justice system, this and other injustices will ultimately undermine the democratic rule of law that is so vital to our nation.
Sarah Cueva is a junior majoring in political science and Middle East studies. Her column “Leaning Toward Liberty” runs Mondays.