Legal Affairs – Military Tribunals Need Not Be Kangaroo Courts

National Journal

In America, people are not supposed to disappear the way they do in Argentina and Guatemala. Yet under President Bush’s November 13 order authorizing trials of noncitizens accused of terrorism by presidentially appointed military commissions, the Bush Administration has assumed sweeping power to make such people almost disappear.

Clinton Flouts the Rule of Law

President Bill Clinton’s embrace of a policy that candidate Clinton had unambiguously denounced is immoral and "illegal" is a discouraging sign for those of us who have looked to him to restore executive-branch respect for the rule of law.

Last July 29, Clinton said: "The [U.S.] Court of Appeals [for the 2nd Circuit] made the right decision [today] in overturning the Bush administration’s cruel policy of returning Haitian refugees to a brutal dictatorship without an asylum hearing."

But on March 2, President Clinton sent a Justice Department lawyer to the Supreme Court to urge reversal of the 2nd Circuit and to bless his perpetuation of the Bush policy, which critics have aptly dubbed a "floating Berlin Wall."

President Clinton, like President George Bush before him, is blocking Haitians from fleeing their island prison for the United States or anywhere else, by seizing them on the high seas and forcibly returning them to their persecutors, without even a cursory hearing for those seeking refuge from political terror.

Here’s how the president explained this flip-flop, on March 2: "I mean, you know, something that was never brought up before , but is now painfully apparent, is that if we did what the plaintiffs in the court case want, we would be consigning a very large number of Haitians, in all probability, to some sort of death warrant." Many would swamp and drown after setting sail in rickety boats, he suggested.

President Clinton’s claim that the danger of drownings "was never brought up before" is simply false; the Bush administration had proclaimed that danger since the May 24 executive order that created the floating Berlin Wall.

Go Back, Huddled Masses?

How desperate must people be to leave their homes and families, crowd into rickety boats, and brave death at sea in the forlorn hope of drifting hundreds of miles to foreign shores, where prison camps await them? Are they driven by poverty? Or by persecution?

President Bush doesn’t want to know. He just wants to send Haitian boat people back to whatever fate awaits them, no questions asked. And so, it seems, do most of the rest of us.

The Bush policy, aptly termed a "floating Berlin Wall" by critics, is to intercept all Haitian boat people on the high seas and return them promptly to their island prison-perhaps to be murdered by their persecutors-without pausing for even a perfunctory hearing of their claims to political asylum.

Announced on May 23, this policy was found illegal by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit on July 29 but remains in force by virtue of a 7-2 Supreme Court vote to issue a stay while weighing the administration’s appeal.

Illegal or not, the naked inhumanity of the Bush policy goes largely undenounced, even by Democrats. It rates only perfunctory press attention and far less public outcry than, say, the plot to move the Washington Redskins to Virginia. Most voters in South Florida want to keep the Haitians out. The rest of us would rather not think about them.

Why are we so callous?

A confession: When I force myself to focus on the boat people, my first impulse is to let them in-all of them. But then irresolution creeps in.

The first impulse is that the entire distinction between political refugees and economic migrants, which has been used for years to fence out most Haitian boat people, seems obscenely legalistic in the face of their desperate flight. The Bush administration’s relentless tightening of the screws, and the fact that these unwelcome refugees all happen to be black, only makes an ugly situation worse.