“Terrorism: Crime and Punishment”
January 27, 2014
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I attended an event hosted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs last Thursday entitled “Terrorism: Crime and Punishment,” featuring Ambassador Thomas Pickering, Ambassador David Scheffer, and Thomas P. Sullivan. The event was a moderated discussion on post 9/11 justice and Guantanamo Bay. Though Ambassador Pickering was the main speaker of the event, Ambassador Scheffer’s comments gave me pause. He mentioned that he believed that the Bush administration after 9/11 should have set up an international tribunal with cooperation from the UN and the international community to deal with suspected terrorists instead of hiding them away in Guantanamo Bay. He believes that if these tribunals had been set up from the beginning the US could have avoided the bad press associated with detaining 50 suspected terrorists in Guantanamo for 12 years without sufficient evidence to hold them. I was surprised at the time that he would suggest international tribunals, but later realized that he was a former US ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues and a special expert on UN assistance to the Khmer Rouge trials. But though he does have an interesting point I am not sure it would have been feasible. His justification is that we would have gotten the international community on our side from the beginning, we might not have gotten involved in the never-ending conflict in the Middle East that we are in currently, and we would not be embroiled in a public relations nightmare over the U.S.’s use of torture in Guantanamo. But based on everything we have read about the use of international tribunals, would the UN or the ICC have agreed to hold a tribunal? The scale of the problem was nowhere near what it was in other countries, and like with the tribunals in Yugoslavia, the courts’ decision to set up a tribunal in the US to prosecute an event that happens regularly in other countries could have been accused of racism. Also the ICC is supposed to be a court of last resort, utilized when the local judicial system no longer has the infrastructure to prosecute crimes. But I think the biggest problem would be ensuring a neutral court, as the US is such an influential member of the UN. Emotions were running very high after 9/11 and the courts must protect their legitimacy in the eyes of the world. I think if a tribunal were set up to prosecute suspected terrorists after 9/11 accusations of racism and bias would follow the courts. Though in 2001 Ambassador Scheffer advocated for an international tribunal he now believes it is too late and that instead the 50 prisoners in Guantanamo should be held as prisoners of war inside the United States as they were captured and detained under the rules of war. Though I do not believe an international tribunal after 9/11 would have been feasible or desirable, what are your thoughts?