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Stand by Ken

It is now revealed that Osama Bin Laden was unarmed when he was shot twice in the head by US Navy Seals, who it seems were operating without lawful authority from the Pakistani government within the jurisdiction of the sovereign state of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Any political response to this needs to consider the broader implications to international law, which is based not only upon treaties, but also upon the actual practice of states.

It can of course be plausibly argued that military action by the United States needed to be undertaken without prior notification to the Pakistani government, due to the long-standing commitment to jihadi Islamism not only by most senior figures in the Pakistani military, but also the Pakistani ISI security service. In such unique circumstances no general precedent may be drawn from this action.

But more disturbing is the abandonment of key principles of the rule of law. Bin Laden was seemingly assassinated when it would have been possible to secure his capture alive. He has faced no criminal charges, and no evidence was presented against him in a court of law.

In contrast, Nazi war criminals as senior as Hermann Goering were captured alive and put on trial. Not only did this demonstrate the superior commitment to legal process and justice of the Allies, but it also resulted in a body of law, such as the Genocide Convention of 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the Nuremburg Principles of 1950, the War Crimes treaties of 1968, and the Geneva Conventions for regulating the conduct of wars.

Giving Osama Bin Laden a trial was not for his benefit, but for the benefit of our democratic society, to demonstrate that our governments are not above the law. A trial would have allowed the development of international law to cope with the new modern phenomenon of global terrorism that crosses national jurisdictions.

While we might accept that for reasons of Realpolitik, the United States government is powerful enough to give itself permission to act outside the rule of law; the correct response of social democratic politicians committed to constitutionality and lawful process is to distance themselves from the illegality, and argue that Bin Laden should have faced trial; and that might is not right.

Ken Livingstone’s argument to the Standard yesterday was therefore completely correct:

We should have captured him and put him on trial. It’s a simple point – are we gangsters or a Western democracy based on the rule of law? This undermines any commitment to democracy and trial by jury and makes Obama look like some sort of mobster.”

Livingstone was defending the concept of the rule of law, and condemning the doctrine that states can give themselves permission to use military force outside any legal constraint. This is indeed the road to mobsterism.

Of course we expect the craven apologists for military power, like Tory MP Greg Hands to use this as an excuse to criticize Livingstone.

Calling President Obama a mobster is yet another example of Ken Livingstone’s extreme views which threaten to damage London. What American business will want to invest in our city if it is run by a man who repeatedly attacks their leader?”

But what is disturbing is the alacrity of mainstream Labour bloggers, like Shamik Das in Left Foot Forward, and Mark Ferguson on Labour List to wade in with the same criticisms, and indeed to give ammunition to the Tory agenda by linking this issue to other things they don’t like about Ken, like his keeping open a working relationship with Tower Hamlets’s independent mayor, Lutfur Rahman.

Mark Ferguson is especially irresponsible tweeting using the “LabourList” brand that this was a mistake by what Mark calls “Foolish Ken”. Given the close association of Labour List with the public perception of the party, its editor should not be undermining the Labour candidate for the London mayoral election, which is an absolutely vital battleground in the campaign to put Ed Miliband into 10 Downing Street.

Let us be clear, both strategically and tactically Ken Livingstone has sound judgement. The Labour Party should position itself as the party committed to the rule of law, and it is right to say so even when the popular mood temporarily applauds vigilantism. That is the correct strategic ground to stand on.

It is also important to note how poor the tactical judgment of Shamik Das and Mark Ferguson is. They demand that Ken should distance himself from Lutfur Rahman. Now this may play well with Labour tribalists, but the truth is that Rahman was the choice of both the majority of Labour Party members to be their candidate for mayor, and also the choice of the majority of Tower Hamlets voters when he stood as an independent on what was effectively a Labour programe.

Livingstone keeping open a door to Rahman is also keeping open the door to the Labour voters, and Respect voters in Tower Hamlet, who Ken needs in order to win in 2012.

The argument is sometimes put forward that this risks losing votes out in the doughnut of suburbs. But this underestimates the degree to which most voters will be motivated by the mainstream issues of the economy, opposing the Tory cuts, a sensible transport policy, good governance and policing for safer communities.

During the selection process for the Labour nomination Ken Livingstone overwhelmingly won the support of the trade unions and Labour councillors because he was seen as the best candidate to deliver on these core issues.

Shamik Das plays a red baiting card by condemning Livingstone’s support by Hugo Chavez. This is ridiculous, most voters have no interest at all in Hugo Chavez, but there is a minority of voters who respond positively both to left internationalism, and to the idea of the London mayor representing the city as an important actor on the world stage,

However, what we cannot afford is for Ken to be undermined by ill-disciplined and egotistical voices from within the Labour Party, echoing the same agenda as Andrew Gilligan and Harry’s Place.

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