Debate Covers Strategies for Closing Guantanamo

Summer 2009

For the 35th annual Wolfgang Friedmann Conference, the Columbia Society of International Law and the Journal of Transnational Law chose to examine one of the most complex and controversial legal issues of the day: the closing of the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, in Cuba. The daylong conference addressed the topic from a comparative international perspective and focused on how the United States should deal with detainees once held at Guantanamo.

“Columbia Law School has a very rich history in the laws of war, the laws of armed conflict,” said Paul B. Simon ’10, who organized the conference with Jantira Supawong ’10. “For us, [the conference was about] both the relevancy of the topic today, and also creating that thread with the history of Columbia.”

The event’s first panel centered on lessons the United States can learn from the detention policies of Northern Ireland, India, and the Balkans. Other countries have “an awful lot to teach us, good, bad, and otherwise,” said Professor Peter Rosenblum, the Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann & Bernstein Clinical Professor in Human Rights, who moderated the panel.

Experts participating in the day’s final panel, moderated by Professor Matthew Waxman, examined how the U.S. should handle Guantanamo detainees. Hina Shamsi, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project and an adjunct professor at the Law School, argued that the detainees should be tried in federal court. “If there’s evidence of wrongdoing, detainees should be charged in a federal court system,” Shamsi said. “If there is no evidence, they should be released.” To further support the call for federal prosecution of detainees, James Benjamin and Richard Zabel, both former federal prosecutors, presented evidence from their study on the effectiveness of federal courts in trying terrorism cases. They found that the system convicts terrorism suspects at a rate of about 90 percent. “That’s not to say it’s perfect, and that’s not to say that it can work in every case,” Benjamin said. “It really does depend on the evidence.”