Sunday, July 02, 2006

US Supreme Court Holds Military Commissions Invalid - Hamdan v. Rumsfeld

The US Supreme Court on 29 June issued its decision in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld and held that the Bush administration did not have authority to set up the war crimes tribunals and found the special military commissions illegal under both the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Geneva Convention. The decision is available here. Justice Stevens wrote the 5-3 opinion and was joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, Souter, and in part Justice Kennedy. Justices Kennedy and Breyer wrote separate opinions. Justices Alito, Thomas, and Scalia dissented and wrote separate dissenting opinions. Chief Justice Roberts took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

Here is a excerpt of the case holding that the Geneva Conventions apply to the conflict with Al Qaeda.

VI. ii.

The conflict with al Qaeda is not, according to the Government, a conflict to which the full protections afforded detainees under the 1949 Geneva Conventions apply because Article 2 of those Conventions (which appears in all four Conventions) renders the full protections applicable only to “all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties.” 6 U. S. T., at 3318. Since Hamdan was captured and detained incident to the conflict with al Qaeda and not the conflict with the Taliban, and since al Qaeda, unlike Afghanistan, is not a “High Contracting Party”-i.e., a signatory of the Conventions, the protections of those Conventions are not, it is argued, applicable to Hamdan.

We need not decide the merits of this argument because there is at least one provision of the Geneva Conventions that applies here even if the relevant conflict is not one between signatories. Article 3, often referred to as Common Article 3 because, like Article 2, it appears in all four Geneva Conventions, provides that in a “conflict not of an international character occurring in the territory of one of the High Contracting Parties, each Party to the conflict shall be bound to apply, as a minimum,” certain provisions protecting “[p]ersons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by … detention.” Id., at 3318. One such provision prohibits “the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.” ....


Common Article 3, then, is applicable here and, as indicated above, requires that Hamdan be tried by a “regularly constituted court affording all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.”... At a minimum, a military commission “can be ‘regularly constituted’ by the standards of our military justice system only if some practical need explains deviations from court-martial practice.”...


Inextricably intertwined with the question of regular constitution is the evaluation of the procedures governing the tribunal and whether they afford “all the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples.” 6 U. S. T., at 3320 (Art. 3, ¶ 1(d)). Like the phrase “regularly constituted court,” this phrase is not defined in the text of the Geneva Conventions. But it must be understood to incorporate at least the barest of those trial protections that have been recognized by customary international law. Many of these are described in Article 75 of Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, adopted in 1977 (Protocol I). Although the United States declined to ratify Protocol I, its objections were not to Article 75 thereof. Indeed, it appears that the Government “regard[s] the provisions of Article 75 as an articulation of safeguards to which all persons in the hands of an enemy are entitled.”...

We agree with Justice Kennedy that the procedures adopted to try Hamdan deviate from those governing courts-martial in ways not justified by any “evident practical need,” post, at 11, and for that reason, at least, fail to afford the requisite guarantees. See post, at 8, 11-17. We add only that, as noted in Part VI-A, supra, various provisions of Commission Order No. 1 dispense with the principles, articulated in Article 75 and indisputably part of the customary international law, that an accused must, absent disruptive conduct or consent, be present for his trial and must be privy to the evidence against him. See § § 6(B)(3), (D). That the Government has a compelling interest in denying Hamdan access to certain sensitive information is not doubted. Cf. post, at 47-48 (Thomas, J., dissenting). But, at least absent express statutory provision to the contrary, information used to convict a person of a crime must be disclosed to him.


Common Article 3 obviously tolerates a great degree of flexibility in trying individuals captured during armed conflict; its requirements are general ones, crafted to accommodate a wide variety of legal systems. But requirements they are nonetheless. The commission that the President has convened to try Hamdan does not meet those requirements.


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