'War on Terror' focus of symposium at MSU

By John Foren

Legal News

It's been a year in the making but this week's conference on the nation's legal handling of terrorism, at the Michigan State University College of Law, could have been grabbed from today's headlines.

The sessions feature some of the country's best-known experts on due process for terrorists, the Guantanamo Bay prison, and the use of torture, among other hot topics.

"It's going to be very controversial. We have the entire spectrum of viewpoints represented," said MSU Law Professor Bruce W. Bean, who's moderating one of the sessions and advises the school's student-run Journal of International Law.

The journal organized the event, called "Is There a War on Terror? Torture, Rendition, Guantanamo and Obama's Preventive Detention."

How timely is it? Just on Sunday, former Vice President Richard Cheney drew international attention when he went on ABC's "This Week" show and blasted President Barack Obama's decisions to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo, prohibit torture in interrogations, and try some terrorists in civilian, rather than military, courts.

The symposium begins at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 18, at the university's Kellogg Center. The keynote speaker is Michael P. Scharf, a professor and director of the Cox International Law Center at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his work on behalf of peace and human rights.

The event continues with a series of panel discussions Friday at the MSU College of Law. Tickets are $15 for one day and $30 for both. Law students pay $10 for the complete conference. Details are available at: www.law.msu.edu/jil/terror.

Don't look for a sedate, dry series of lectures.

Scharf, for instance, is deeply critical of the Bush Administration's legal policies on terrorism, such as the use of torture on suspects, and is likely to say so in blunt terms, Bean said.

On the other hand, Friday's keynote speaker, Scott Horton, a human rights activist and Harper's Magazine columnist, is likely to also castigate President Barack Obama over the fact Guantanamo remains open.

Obama issued an executive order to close the facility, the site of notorious torture of terrorism suspects, soon after he became president. But it is still open as the administration considers where to put its inmates.

Other speakers will discuss the unintended consequences of allowing due process for suspected terrorists.

Bean said there are few international issues that rest so clearly on lawyers and interpretation of the law. The Bush Administration based its torture policies in part on the OK from then-White House counsel (and later Attorney General) Alberto Gonzales.

"It's seldom that the lawyers become the heart of a diplomatic or governmental dispute," Bean said.

The issue of how to handle terrorism legally is rife with extremes. There are those who believe terrorism is a terrible thing and terrible measures must be taken to address it and those who argue the rule of law always applies, no matter the crime, he said.

"It is a fantastic topic. It is not a topic for which there is an answer. At the end of Friday we're still going to be split 51-49 or 49-51," Bean said.

Symposium panelist Kyndra Rotunda of the Chapman University and University of California-Berkeley law schools brings a special perspective.

She served in the U.S. Navy's Judge Advocate General's Corps at Guantanamo and is intimately familiar with its operations. She was a legal adviser to the commander of the detention camp and believes the public has not received a full picture of the operation.

Rotunda has written a book about the experience, called "Honor Bound: Inside the Guantanmo Trials."

Rotunda will be part of a panel on Friday and will discuss the U.S. Supreme Court's increasing activism on government policy toward detainees.

"It looks to be a fabulous lineup," she said of the conference, "honing in on key issues facing us on the war on terror and decisions facing us on the detainees. These issues are evolving literally every day."

The idea for the symposium came from MSU law school student Alberto J. Delgado, executive editor of the Journal of International Law. That was in early 2009 and Delgado now says, "I was obviously really lucky to choose a topic that was all over the (media)."

While the event is aimed at fostering debate on important legal topics, it also has a practical goal of promoting the MSU College of Law.

The school sometimes gets overlooked in favor of its counterparts at the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and Cooley Law School.

"We want to build and strengthen the reputation of the MSU College of Law as a powerhouse of academic and scholarly discussion," Delgado said.

Published: Wed, Feb 17, 2010

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