Review of the Movie ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ in light of International Law Principles and Elements

Zero Dark Thirty
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About the Authors:

Prithviraj B G and Sandesh Pai are the law students of School of Law , CHRIST (Deemed to be University).

Plot Summary of ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Zero Dark Thirty is a Hollywood movie depicting the manhunt of Osama Bin Laden by the CIA, post the 9/11 terror attacks in the US. The film articulately shows the consistent efforts made by the CIA to track down the whereabouts of Bin Laden, by interrogating and spying on various aids, thought to have been working alongside Bin Laden. The whole movie is based on the US intelligence activities which take place across Pakistan. Common themes recurring throughout the movie in extracting information regarding the whereabouts of Bin Laden are those of ‘torture’, ‘bribery’, etc.

The movie revolves around various enhanced interrogation techniques used by CIA Operatives to extort critical information about Bin Laden and his hideout. After years of painstaking efforts, the CIA is able to identify the possible location of Bin-Laden in Pakistan, and so they engage a Special Operatives Strike Team to capture/ kill him. The movie ends with Bin-Laden being killed in the dark of night, and his corpse being flown away to the US, after confirmation of his identity.

Public International Law Elements Involved

Under Article 2(4) of the UN Charter on the Prohibition of the utilization of Force, the utilization of Force should be obliged erga-omnes (towards everybody) expressing: “All Members will hold back in their global relations from the danger or utilization of power against the regional uprightness or on the other hand the political autonomy of any state, or in some other way conflicting with the Purposes of the United Nations.”[1]

Moreover, this can likewise be found in the UN Security Council, UNSC, Resolution 1917, which reaffirms the admiration of the respectability of the regional state concerned.[2]

As indicated by a public statement from the Spokesperson of Pakistan, Operation Neptune Spear had not been conveyed to Pakistan.[3]

Pakistan has deliberately endured the presence of terror-based oppressors on its soil, like Al-Qaeda, and reserve the option to pre-emptive self-preservation under Article 51 of the UN Charter. It ought to be noticed that the UNSC never unequivocally approved military procedure in unfamiliar regions to battle terror-based oppressors, but rather, they comprehend the intrinsic need to adapt to terrorist suspects through the exemplary standard of “aut dedere autiudicare” (either to remove or indict them).[4]

UNSC Resolution 1456, hence, demands that –

“States Must bring justice to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts or provide safe havens, in accordance with international law in particular on the basis of the principle to extradite or prosecute…”[5]

Article 51 of the UN Charter, however, can only be implored if there is an immediate threat that can only be prevented by the immediate use of force, therefore, not allowing the UNSC to act in time. Thus, if immediacy is lacking, or if the UNSC has taken all appropriate actions, a self-defense claim cannot be raised. However, if there is a threat and the UNSC does not take all appropriate actions, the threatened state has the opportunity to invoke Article 51.[6]

On account of Operation Neptune Spear, the UNSC didn’t approve of the utilization of force. The US contended self-protection of the nation under Article 51 with respect to a continuous assault. It may be reasoned that the assault was still up in the air as self-protection against a continuous assault, in light of the fact that there was certifiably not a current assault that actually was continuing during the hour of activity.

International Humanitarian Law Elements Involved

IHL requires the presence of a weapon-equipped military action before any further tasks occur. A furnished clash, by and large, can be worldwide or non-global. The particular authoritative archives that comprise if a furnished clash can be viewed as global, are shown in the 1907 Hague Convention under Article IV ‘Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land’ and its Annex, the ‘Geneva Conventions of 1949’, and the ‘Additional Protocol I of 1977’. Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocol II of 1977 are relevant in deciding non-global furnished contentions.

To hypothesize and assess the legitimateness of the activity, it should not be set in stone whether the US was occupied with a worldwide or non-global military clash with Al-Qaeda. The questions that would arise with regard to the killing of Osama Bin Laden, as shown in the movie, in the aspect of IHL are –

1. Whether there was an International/ Non-International armed conflict?

2. How clear was Osama Bin Laden’s position as a ‘Combatant’ under IHL or his position as a civilian taking part in ‘Direct Hostilities’ under the International Law?

These questions have to be deeply looked into. The US had, by using Article 1 of the Hague Convention; Common Article 3(1) and Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, only protected “persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed as ‘hors de combat’ tried to prove Bin Laden as a Combatant under IHL”, but failed in their attempt due to non-adherence to the definitions in part and lack of evidence.

Neither could they prove Bin Laden to be an unlawful combatant, nor a Hors De Combat under the International Humanitarian Law, which is where the Principles of Proportionality and Distinction came to be used. According to the ‘Principle of Distinction’ where Rule 1 for the Principle of Distinction calls for differentiation between Civilians and Combatants, such distinction requires that armed forces “must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants.”[7]

Since there were only 55-70 percent chances according to the CIA that Bin Laden was present in Abbottabad, due to circumstantial evidence it would be giving rise to many problems concerning adherence to this principle. Finally, coming over to the ‘Principle of Proportionality’ as the second element of customary international law under Article 51(5)(b) of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions-

“An attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”[8] Here, since Bin Laden was a militant belonging to Al-Qaeda, which killed many people and hurt them, it could be held that the killing of one person could save the lives of many common people, thereby giving Operation Neptune Spear, the benefit of adherence to International law under this principle through the act of killing of Osama Bin Laden, as depicted in the movie.


Zero Dark Thirty tries to capture the essence behind a nearly decade long manhunt for one of the most notorious terrorists of all time and portrays the extreme measures undertaken by the CIA to uncover the truth about the whereabouts of Bin Laden, and his close aides who were instrumental in the 9/11 attacks. The portrayal of extensive interrogation and torture techniques by the Operatives on the detained terrorists certainly does pique some aspects of International Humanitarian Law and does require some introspection into its legality and ethicality.

However, the movie does exaggerate certain elements of the truth behind the real-life operation of Operation Neptune Spear, and the CIA has insisted that the interrogation and torture depicted in the movie are quite different from the methods adopted by them in reality. To conclude, it is pertinent to note that ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ does indeed touch upon the various highlighted International Law Principles, and in doing so, gives the viewers a lot to think about, especially with regards to the effectiveness and enforcement of International Law.

Key Words – “aut dedere autiudicare”; Geneva Convention; Hague Convention Article 3(1);Operation Neptune Spear ; UN Charter on Utilization of Force Article 2(4); Article 51 of UN Charter ; Public International Law ; International Humanitarian Law .


  1. The legal nature of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter.
  2. UNSC Res. 1917 (2010).
  3. Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (2011). Press Release No. 152/2011.
  4. Ambos, K., & Alkatout, J. (2012). Has ‘Justice Been Done’? The Legality of Bin Laden’s Killing Under International Law. Israel Law Review. p.363.
  5. United Nations’ S/RES/1456 (2003) Security Council Dist. ….
  6. Ambos, K., & Alkatout, J. (2012). Has ‘Justice Been Done’? The Legality of Bin Laden’s Killing Under International Law. Israel Law Review. p.364
  7. Rule 1 for the Principle of Distinction between Civilians and Combatants.
  8. International Committee of the Red Cross. (1977). Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts.


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