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How will the next President treat detainees?

By Lauren | September 26, 2008

We’ve been hearing for at least a  week that the world was going to come to a cataclysmic end unless immediate, effective action was taken by Congress and the Administration to fix the Wall Street train wreck.  No action (effective or otherwise) has been taken, the politicians continue to blame, carp, and maneuver, and guess what?  We’re all still here.  So, let’s talk about something else today. 

Continuing my series on ethical issues facing the next President, let’s turn to the U.S. government’s treatment of detainees held in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.  (Please note, by the way, that the Guantanamo Bay detention center is in Cuba, which takes it outside the reach of much of the U.S. Constitution and federal law.)  There’s been an ongoing debate as to what interrogation techniques should be used on those prisoners, whether it’s ethical to hold them incommunicado, what legal rights they may have, and so forth.  The U.S. Supreme Court decided in June that non-citizens detained at Guantanamo Bay are entitled to some Constitutional protections, but the specifics of how they should be treated remain a subject of heated debate.

The Washington and Lee University School of Law has developed a framework for the ethical treatment of prisoners worldwide titled “The Lexington Principles on the Rights of Detainees.”  According to the participants in the project, their mission was “to clarify and strengthen transnational norms pertaining to due process of law and the treatment of persons detained on suspicion of terrorist activities … in keeping with the recommendation of the 9/11 Commission on this subject (emphasis mine).”  In other words, this isn’t the abstract thinking of some ivory tower academics – it’s a direct, thoughtful response to a call from the bi-partisan 9/11 Commission. 

And the authors have done a great job.  Relying on principles of international law and fundamental human decency, the Lexington Principles clearly address the rights of prisoners to due process, decent physical and medical treatment, communications with attorneys and relatives, and appropriate religious observance.  They expressly prohibit torture, rape, mutilation, and other forms of severe bodily harm.  I, for one, would hope that any U.S. soldier held captive in a foreign prison would enjoy the rights set forth in the Lexington Principles.  They aren’t specifically targeted at the U.S. government, but they’re certainly relevant to what’s going on in our military detention facilities right now.

Whenever national security is involved, it’s tempting to think that the need to protect our citizens trumps the rights of anyone who might be able to provide information.  At some point, however, the ends cease to justify the means.  Decent treatment of prisoners of war has always been a central principle of American honor; even when fighting the Revolutionary War, then-General George Washington insisted that captured British soldiers be treated well.  Will the next President embrace the Lexington Principles?  What’s your candidate’s position on the treatment of detainees, and are you okay with it?  You decide.

To read the Lexington Principles, visit http://law.wlu.edu/lexingtonprinciples/page.asp?pageid=769

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Topics: ethics, Legal Ethics, Presidential Campaign, Social Ethics | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “How will the next President treat detainees?”


  1. Nell Says:
    November 18th, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    Please note, by the way, that the Guantanamo Bay detention center is in Cuba, which takes it outside the reach of much of the U.S. Constitution and federal law.

    The decision of the Supreme Court in Boumediene v. Bush this past June is only the latest and most decisive of the Court’s rejections of this assertion.

    It is accurate to say that the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo was intended by the Bush administration to take those men and boys outside the reach of much of the U.S. Constitution and federal law.

  2. Lauren Says:
    November 19th, 2008 at 4:06 am

    Hi Nell,

    You’re right, and thanks for the correction.

    Lauren

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