Are extrajudicial killings UK policy?

By Savi Hensman
December 8, 2017

The UK Defence Secretary, Gavin Willamson, has been widely criticised after apparently threatening to have citizens who fought for Isil/Daesh killed. This would undermine the rule of law and risk boosting terrorism. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/24780)

“Quite simply, my view is a dead terrorist can't cause any harm to Britain”, he told the Daily Mail “I do not believe that any terrorist, whether they come from this country or any other, should ever be allowed back into this country. We should do everything we can do to destroy and eliminate that threat.”

There has been controversy over the legality and morality of drone and jet strikes against UK citizens who have gone to Syria or Iraq to fight for Isil/Daesh. However extending this to those who are no longer (or never have been) combatants would be murder.

Yet Williamson appeared willing to take that step. “We have got to make sure that as (they) splinter and as they disperse across Iraq and Syria and other areas, we continue to hunt them down,” he said.

The UK does not have the death penalty. But even those countries that do usually claim to have some form of trial for suspects. Summary execution is against the law.


The Defence Secretary did not even seem to suggest that age or mental capacity be taken into account. If a child is lured into joining a violent organisation, then realises they were wrong and wants to come home, assassinating them would match Isil/Daesh’s ruthlessness.

This approach also carries a heavy risk of mistaken identity. It would be all too easy for special forces to gun down a blameless citizen on holiday abroad whose name resembles that of a suspect or looks vaguely like him or her.

Such a policy does not even make military sense. While some might be deterred from joining such organisations, those already abroad would have an incentive to stay and fight rather than to quit. And slaughtering defenceless ex-recruits would almost certainly turn some in their communities against the UK state.

In addition, as the Labour MP John Woodcock pointed out, "Any future enemy of Britain could say, 'Why should we respect the Geneva convention on captured British soldiers when the British don't respect it for their own citizens?"'

“Soldiers are taught that for force to have legitimacy it must: distinguish between those who pose a threat and those who do not; be proportional in terms of what you are trying to achieve; and be borne out of the need to protect life and prevent further suffering, not a desire for retribution”, wrote another Labour MP and former British army major, Dan Jarvis

He warned that “if our response to terrorism is to destroy human rights and the rule of law, the terrorists have already won.”

“It is not difficult to see that any member of the military that followed his advice could be subjected to court martial and prosecution,” said Lord (Menzies) Campbell, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesperson.

When a spokesperson for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, was asked whether she backed Williamson’s stance, he hedged. People fighting for IS had made themselves a “legitimate target”, he said, but mentioned that “In instances where people do return to the UK, we are clear they should face the consequences of their actions, which include investigation by police and possible prosecution.”

Such a policy would be popular with a section of the public keen on a tough stance and, for the most part, convinced that only those of another faith and ethnicity would be targeted. But when the rule-book is torn up, anyone can end up being targeted.

The spiritual damage done when ideas of this kind are promoted by leaders is often followed by an undermining of public safety. Faith communities and other people of goodwill have a part to play in raising awareness of the dangers.

As someone originally from Sri Lanka, I have seen how violation of human rights in the course of tackling terrorism can make it worse, as well as inflicting suffering on a major scale. In other countries too, experience has shown how the cheapening of life by those in power can have widespread catastrophic consequences.

It is understandable that people are angry with those who have joined Isil/Daesh, even briefly, especially in the light of atrocities in the UK. However mirroring this movement’s authoritarianism and violence will only make matters worse.

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© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia associate and respected commentator on welfare and other issues. She is author of the book Sexuality, struggle and saintliness: same-sex love and the church (Ekklesia, 2016): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/22613 and has been involved in seeking greater inclusion.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.