(Delighted to welcome back alumna Laurie Blank, who contributes this guest post)
As Professor Amos Guiora and I argue in "Don’t Deny Detainees Their Day in Court," an op-ed published a few days ago in the Los Angeles Times, the idea that every person deserves his or her "day in court" is a fundamental principle in the United States and many countries worldwide. Yet more than nine years after 9/11, the United States remains paralyzed not just about how to give the thousands of detainees in U.S. custody around the world their day in court but about whether to give them that day in court.
Multiple judicial forums have been created to try nonstate actors who have perpetrated war crimes from Rwanda to Sierra Leone to Cambodia to the former Yugoslavia — to give them their day in court. That makes the failure to answer this question for post-9/11 detainees particularly perplexing and deeply troubling.
Two successive administrations have been incapable of answering what should be the most basic questions: if, how and where to try terrorists. In the meantime, post-9/11 detainees languish in indefinite detention. The result is a fundamental and overwhelming violation of the rights of individuals who are no more than suspects, in either past or (more problematic) future acts.
The Obama administration reportedly now intends to issue an executive order establishing indefinite detention without trial for detainees at Guantánamo Bay. Such a decision would formalize this violation of basic rights. Denying individual accountability would now be official U.S. policy and law.
The claim that granting prisoners the right to file petitions for habeas corpus and receive regular reviews is sufficient is disingenuous. At best, that only addresses detention status, without doubt an important question. But it does not facilitate the resolution of individual accountability, the principle that requires that an individual have the opportunity for adjudication of his or her guilt or innocence. It is wrong morally, not to mention legally.
The first step, therefore, is to determine that individuals detained post 9/11 deserve their day in court, just like domestic criminals and perpetrators of war crimes. The next step is to implement a mechanism that can do so fairly and effectively. Speedy resolution is, by now, wishful thinking at best.
Unfortunately, for the last nine years, the U.S. has skipped the first step, and has let narrow political considerations devoid of morality, legality and decency determine the nature of the second step. Decision-makers talk of constitutional law and a "beacon on the hill," but acting on that talk seems to present overwhelming challenges. Principles have been discarded in the name of expediency.
Just as crimes grant the state the power to punish, so the state owes the detainees a duty of resolution, a duty to give them their day in court and either prosecute or release, convict or acquit. In the absence of an effective framework to do so, the state is engaging in unconscionable behavior - with an immunity largely granted by Congress and courts alike. Supreme Court and congressional acquiescence in the face of executive power has historically ill-served the American people.
Those who argue that indefinite detention accords with the treatment of prisoners of war gloss over two key distinctions: POWs are held in protective custody and released at the end of hostilities, whereas post-9/11 detainees are held in de facto punitive detention and terrorism has no end to trigger release. Those who want to argue that we are at war with al-Qaeda and other terrorists fail to consider that the law of war and principles of morality in armed conflict do not countenance such an approach, where detainees face the prospect of generational, even lifetime, detention without charge or trial.
Under the law of war, detention is a fundamental aspect of the authority to wage war and has the critical purpose of removing enemy fighters from the battlefield.
Within this framework, POWs are held as a preventive measure – states cannot prosecute POWs for engaging in lawful belligerent acts, i.e., for simply being enemy soldiers fighting on the battlefield. Battlefield detention is lawful and appropriate within this framework and there is no obligation to prosecute or release in this paradigm. The similarity to the indefinite detention we talk about today for detainees at Guantanamo thus lies in the fact that POWs are held without charge and for an unknown (but, critically, not undefined) period of time.
It is the differences that are critical here, though. The differences stretch traditional law of war detention to the extreme and create the effect of forcing a square peg into a round hole. Geography, lawful belligerency, suspected criminality, time parameters – each of these creates another stretch, another tear in the fabric.
► First, battlefield detention is just that – detention of those picked up on the battlefield.
As I’ve noted in an earlier blog post, defining the battlefield in the current conflict against Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups is a critical task, albeit one not yet undertaken or accomplished. We therefore face a situation in which detainees may be held indefinitely under this new framework even if they were picked up either far from a battlefield or – perhaps – in an area where we are uncertain if it is the battlefield. If we cannot identify the battlefield, how can we identify battlefield detainees?
► Second, law of war detention is designed to hold enemy fighters until the “cessation of active hostilities.” In World War II, we held German soldiers for several years, until the end of the war. Several years – not a lifetime. The nature of terrorism and counterterrorism is that we are not going to defeat terrorism; rather, terrorism is something to be managed, minimized, defended against. Not only can we not envision an end to the hostilities, but more problematic, we have absolutely no way of identifying what that end might look like. Sure, we might defeat Al Qaeda in some meaningful way, ending their ability to launch any effective attacks against the U.S. or its allies, but some other terrorist group will take up, or have already taken up, the same fight and we will still be engaged in a conflict with terrorist groups. The consequence of this uncertainty and this very nature of terrorism is that indefinite detention effectively means generational, if not lifetime, detention. Such detention is on another scale entirely from law of war detention as we know it.
► Finally, belligerency and criminality also raise questions here. Law of war detention is primarily designed for lawful belligerents, prisoners of war. The U.S. has gone to great pains – and rightly so in most cases – to argue and demonstrate that the folks at Guantanamo are not lawful belligerents. Rather, they are persons not entitled to any form of privileged combatancy under traditional principles of international law. Still more, they are generally persons we suspect (or could likely prove depending on the evidence available) have committed violent crimes against Americans, American interests and our allies. Unlike law of war detention, therefore, where individuals held in protective custody are specifically not suspected of or charged with any crime, the detainees to be held in indefinite detention are effectively held in punitive custody, suspected of culpability in violent, criminal terrorist attacks but neither charged nor prosecuted.
Indefinite detention in these circumstances is a square peg in a round hole and completely undermines the basic notion of individual accountability, thus constituting a fundamental miscarriage of justice. The United States, uncertain whether the detainees are criminals or more akin to fighters in an armed conflict, must still grant them the basic right to a day in court. Without that, individual accountability is simply eliminated, effectively saying that the adjudication of individual liability is burdensome, perhaps even irrelevant.
This is not the American way; rather, it is a repudiation of American values. Whatever method of trial one prefers – civilian courts, national security courts, or military commissions, the time has come to decide and adjudicate.