On May 2, 2011, after becoming a casualty during Operation Geronimo, a military operation in Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden's body was flown to the USS Carl Vinson, prepared for burial under Islamic tradition, and then buried at sea. A lawful military target during a time of armed conflict, Bin Laden was apparently disposed of within the parameters of those laws that govern armed conflict.
The laws of armed conflict in general govern the methods and means of warfare and protect those persons found on the battlefield. These laws were codified in various international treaties, to include the Hague Rules of 1907, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Protocols Additional of 1977. Within these laws, which codified centuries of custom and courtesies of war, there are procedures to care for and dispose of the dead found on the battlefield.
What were the obligations of United States Special Operations Forces related to the body of Osama Bin Laden? The first obligation was not to defile, rob, or desecrate the body. Secondly, the body was to be identified, personal affects collected and inventoried and then, thirdly the body disposed of appropriately as the circumstances dictate following religious customs.
The facts show that after Bin Laden was tentatively identified, he was taken via helicopter out of Pakistan, identified/photographed in Afghanistan, and then his body was transferred to a military vessel, the body prepared for burial according to Islamic tradition, and then buried at sea. Apparently the burial was videotaped. End of story?
Alas it is not the end of the story. The United States has complied with the law; yet public concern, skepticism, and interest over whether it was truly Bin Laden are putting pressure on the Obama administration to release photographs of the body to the public.
My advice would be not to do so as the laws of armed conflict generally preclude such action. The general rule is that prisoners of war, detainees, and the dead are to be treated humanely, not ridiculed, defiled, or made examples of during their incarceration/disposal.
Releasing a picture of a deceased Bin Laden, particularly since the face was badly damaged in the fire fight, would only inflame his emotional and distraught supporters, even harden their resolve to fight on. Bin Laden's greatest weapon was the media. Releasing those photographs could give him one more minor victory.
Bin Laden has been legally disposed of in a lawful military operation. Let's not end the event with a questionable act, regardless of the political and public pressure to do so by showing sensational photographs of Bin Laden's corpse. Show the identification photos to those who have an official need to know and move forward taking the fight to the rest of the leadership of this international criminal organization.
David Crane is a professor at Syracuse University College of Law and the founding former Chief Prosecutor of the international war crimes tribunal in West Africa called the Special Court for Sierra Leone, 2001-2005.
Suggested citation: David Crane, Burial at Sea: The End of Osama Bin Laden, JURIST - Forum, May 4, 2011, http://jurist.org/forum/2011/05/burial-at-sea-the-end-of-osama-bin-laden.php.