PSU Debate Covers Human Rights and Rules of War

Human Rights attorney Scott Horton debated Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Peter Berkowitz on human rights and the rules of warfare in a debate organized by the Pomona Student Union on Mar. 4 at 7 p.m. in Edmunds Ballroom.

Horton, who specializes in Human Rights Law and the Law of Armed Conflict, is an adjunct professor at Columbia Law School and, since 2007, has been a contributing editor to Harper’s Magazine, in which he focuses on legal affairs and national security.

Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he works on issues surrounding the relationship between law, ethics and politics in modern society.

The debate focused on four questions: the legitimacy of private security contractors, accidental harm to civilians in relation to the concept of proportionality, closing black sites, and the rights of alleged terrorists.

Despite the apparent controversy of these issues, Horton and Berkowitz spent much of the debate agreeing with each other.

At one point, Berkowitz even apologized for agreeing too much. He went on to promise there would be more controversy later.

That promise was fulfilled when Matt Wolfson PO ’12 asked the debaters whether closing secret prisons, known as black sites, would be a mistake.

Berkowitz said he believes the government should close black sites, because the extreme secrecy of these prisons increases the chance that abuse will occur.

However, he still argued in favor of the legality of secret prisons and the interrogation techniques they use.

“The CIA secret prisons were never intended to be beyond the reach of law and they never were beyond the reach of law,” Berkowitz said. “Of its own initiative, the CIA sought guidance from the authoritative executive branch office concerning the legality of interrogation techniques used in secret prisons. That doesn’t describe a program that aims to be or is beyond the reach of law.”

Horton responded by questioning whether the black sites had actually been required to follow the law.

“I have to say I’m somewhat dumbstruck by the suggestion that the black sites were subject to the rule of law,” Horton said. “If that’s true, then it’s really only subject to the President’s idea of law, and clearly it was not subjected to any law interpreted by an independent authority like a court.”

Wolfson, who organized the debate, said he noticed that the media has recently been focused on President Barack Obama’s failure to put an end to many of the war policies that he had condemned the Bush Administration for pursuing. Obama has been specifically attacked for not closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp as well as secret prisons located elsewhere.

However, Wolfson said that recently the media has ignored issues involving the rules of warfare. He organized the debate with the intention of addressing these concerns.

“PSU’s mission is to encourage dialogue and talking about opinions from diverse perspectives on campus,” Wolfson said. “One of the ways I think we do that is by bringing to life issues that people have sort of forgot about. This is really important, even if it’s not talked about at the moment.”

By bringing Horton and Berkowitz to debate on campus, Wolfson hoped to spark discussion in the Pomona community, where students do not usually respond well to conservative viewpoints.

“It’s hard to find credible conservatives that will be well-received by Pomona,” Wolfson said. “In many senses, Berkowitz was attractive because he will state, intellectually, things that others are not willing to state.”

Wolfson said that although these issues may seem removed from the lives of many Pomona students, he felt it was important for them to be aware of these subjects. “No matter who you are, these issues can play into your life,” Wolfson said.

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