OO7: License to Kill?

Geneva is now flooded with advertisements for the latest James Bond movie, Mourir peut attendre (No Time to Die). On buses and on trains, on television and in the local newspapers, the 25th Bond film and the last starring Daniel Craig, has overwhelmed the city with its publicity. But how can one celebrate a hero such as Bond who has killed roughly 600 people throughout his cinematic career? From Geneva, the world’s center for the protection of human and humanitarian rights, one should ask the obvious question: Who gives James Bond a licence to kill?

All the Bond movies deal with foreign enemies. From the mountain tops in Switzerland to the sandy beaches in Jamaica, from the sleazy streets of Las Vegas to the charms of Venetian canals, Bond has hunted down Britain’s enemies. (There are even tours “On the Tracks of OO7,” promising “trips, tours and events to the fascinating James Bond filming locations around the world.”) He is not a local London Bobbie. The MI6 agent always finds ways to thwart global plots to take over the world.

That’s fine. But who are the enemies? Many are underground groups like SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion), or in legal terms, non-state actors with global ambitions. The distinction between state enemies and non-state actors is central to the question of who gives Bond his licence to kill. For if the enemy were a state actor, as was originally the Soviet Union or North Korea, one might assume the British consider themselves at war with such an enemy. In that case, some would assume Bond would have a legal right to kill enemy agents as he does.

But even then, there would be limits on who and how he could kill. The famous example is during a war if a soldier finds an enemy soldier sleeping. Does the soldier have the right to shoot a sleeping enemy soldier? Is everything permitted during times of war?

Humanitarian law tries to limit what can and cannot be done during warfare.  So a licence to kill is never absolute. Does James Bond have that licence?

In his outstanding study of War (Oxford University Press), Professor Andrew Clapham explains the famous OO7’s licence as follows: “when the Double OO signifier was invented for OO7 by Ian Fleming in 1953, it was explained by Bond himself as follows; ’A Double O number in our Service means you’ve had to kill a chap in cold blood in the course of some job.’” Later, in 1958 in Dr. No, Clapham footnotes, Fleming explained that “the hard earned double ‘OO’ prefix is linked to a licence to kill.”

As an intelligence agent of the British government or working for the CIA, Bond might have a degree of immunity. But Britain or the United States were never in a war in all the Bond movies – Clapham makes the important distinction between a war between states and actions against non-state actors like SPECTRE as well as between declared Wars and other forms of hostilities.

So although Bond is operating outside of war and armed conflict, he is still subject to certain international laws, in this case human rights law. In the post-Cold War era, Clapham notes that “The United Kingdom has a new statutory scheme to authorize criminal conduct in the course of certain covert operations.” Specifically, an Explanatory Note to the 2021 Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Act states that: “All public authorities are bound by the Human Rights Act to act in a way that is compatible with the rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. Rights that are protected by the Convention include the right to life, and prohibition of torture or subjecting someone to inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Is James Bond a murderer then? Can he be prosecuted for murder? If we are talking about some inter-state conflict, there are numerous humanitarian rules about what soldiers can and cannot do. After combat, for example, they cannot be tried for murder if they merely participated in hostilities. But Bond’s enemies are mostly non-state actors and the movies’ action takes place outside wartime.

Most non-state actors like SPECTRE are treated as terrorists. As such, international law gives them no combatant immunity. Organizations such as Geneva Call and the International Committee of the Red Cross have tried to teach rebel groups that it is in their interest to know and follow international humanitarian law.

Is Bond acting in self-defense? He always seems to be foiling plots against his country. In self-defense, therefore, are his actions justified? Are they proportional? Does it give him a licence to kill as he does?

There are technical answers to these questions in Clapham’s magnum opus. In his conclusion, he states that “War is not an excuse to abandon the rule of law and our morality.”

After his last Bond movie, Craig is scheduled to perform Macbeth in the theatre. In an interview, he said: “Macbeth is one of those characters who’s reported on, at first, as being this warrior who can slice a person from their nut sack to their throat. But he’s closer to Hamlet than anything because he’s so inward-looking.”

OO7 as Macbeth? Bond becoming inward-looking? Maybe our favorite MI6 agent has had enough of his seeming unlimited licence to kill and recognizes that “War is not an excuse to abandon the rule of law and morality.” For even in Shakespeare, there are limits to waging warfare. (Many examples are given in Theodore Meron’s Bloody Constraint: War & Chivalry in Shakespeare Oxford University Press)

Enjoy the movie.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.