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Debate: Internment

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Should governments have the power to intern suspects without trial?

Background and context

Internment can be defined as the indefinite detention of a person by a government, and the denial of the normal legal processes that would usually be available to a them, such as the right to know the charges and evidence against them, the right to a public trial, the right to appeal to a higher judicial authority, etc. This is usually justified as necessary in a period of national emergency, such as a war or during a terrorist campaign, in order to ensure that dangerous individuals are not left free to threaten society. Typically, individuals are detained because of intelligence obtained by the security services. Because this topic assumes that internees are denied rights which would normally be available, it essentially applies to democratic countries where the government is subject to the rule of law. The debate raises issues of civil liberties and security, as well as of the relationship between the executive and judicial branches of government. Different governments have assumed powers to intern those they feared since the beginnings of modern democracy, and these were widely used in both World Wars. In particular, Britain detained those of German background (including Jewish refugees from Hitler) as well as those with known fascist sympathies (such as Oswald Mosley), while the USA interned over 110 000 Japanese-Americans (Nisei) during the Second World War. More recently, in 1971 the British government used internment of hundreds of republican suspects in an attempt to shut down the IRA (abandoning it four years later after several modifications to the system). Today, of course, the debate focuses upon the response of governments to the war on terror, and in particular to the actions of the USA and UK in handling terror suspects. The UK has withdrawn (abrogated) from Article 5 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which bans detention without trial, in order to hold a small number (currently 11) of foreign nationals seen as a threat to national security. The USA also detained non-citizens without trial in the months following the attacks of September 11 2001, secretly arresting and holding over 750 foreign nationals (most of whom have subsequently been deported). Following the campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, some 600 fighters of various nationalities were classed as enemy combatants (rather than prisoners of war, who should be released when hostilities have ended) and taken to Guantanamo Bay, where most still remain. The significance of Guantanamo Bay is that it is a US naval base in Cuba, permanently leased from that country but not legally part of the USA. This means that the detainees can be held under military authority without appeal to the American legal system. At the discretion of the executive, they can be released as no longer a threat, sent to their country of origin, or tried before a military commission. Also controversial has been the designation of several American citizens as enemy combatants, allowing them also to be detained at the will of the executive.

This article is based on a Debatabase entry written by Alastair Endersby. Because this document can be modified by any registered user of this site, its contents should be cited with care.

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Safety vs. liberty: Can the interest of safety take precedence over the interests of liberty in justifying interment?

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Yes

By protecting life, internment is protecting the greatest liberty of all: life. Life itself is the greatest liberty of all as all other liberties depend on its maintenance. For this reason, one of the greatest obligations of a government is to protect the lives of its citizens. If other liberties are sacrificed in the interests of security, this should not be seen necessarily as a sacrifice of liberty, but rather a trade-off and prioritization among various liberties. It is essential that enemy combatants be held securely until they no longer pose a threat to the liberties.

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No

The war on terror is not truly winnable, making it wrong to "intern" or detain on the indefinite basis of such a war. - there is no likely endpoint at which we will be able to declare an enemy to have been defeated and so allow detained "enemy combatants" to go home - so these harsh but supposedly temporary wartime measures will become the norm.

Depriving a person of their liberty without due process is wrong, unconstitutional, illegal, and unAmerican. - If we do not have strong evidence, we should not bring a person to trial. Without a trial, no one should be held for any significant length of time.

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Making us safer?: Is internment actually making us safer? Is it a good counter-terrorism strategy?

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Yes

Internment removes threats from society. If clear threats exist to a society, a government is obligated to protect its citizens. Everyone recognises the importance of protecting rights and liberties, but this cannot be done at any cost to safety. There is a wider duty on politicians to protect society from harm, and their voters will rightly hold them to account if they fail in this responsibility. As the UK's Home Secretary, David Blunkett has written: "How best to protect ourselves effectively while maintaining the maximum freedoms is one of the biggest issues facing all democratic governments in the aftermath of September 11… I am willing to take whatever critics may throw at me, as long as history does not judge that our Labour government failed to do its best to protect us against those who would destroy our lives and our democracy."

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No

Giving the government the power to detain suspects without due process of law will not make society any safer. The proposition's arguments rely upon the accuracy of secret intelligence, which supposedly identifies individuals planning terrorist acts, but which cannot be revealed in open court. Past examples suggest that such intelligence is often deeply flawed. For example, when internment was introduced in Northern Ireland in 1971 over 100 of the 340 original detainees were released within two days when it was realised much of the Special Branch intelligence that had been used to identify them was incorrect. Recent intelligence failures in the campaign against Al-Qaeda point to the difficulties western intelligence services have in penetrating and understanding non-white groups, while intelligence on Iraq's weapons programmes was also clearly flawed. So not only will many of the wrong people be unjustly locked up, many dangerous ones will be left at liberty.

  • Internet is used effectively by terrorists in propaganda and as a "recruiting sergeant": Not only is intelligence often badly flawed, internment simply doesn't work as a strategy to combat terrorism. Instead it is counter-productive, because it makes martyrs of the individuals and groups who are being detained. The experience of Northern Ireland was that internment acted as a "recruiting sergeant" for the IRA, radicalising many detainees without previous terrorist contacts, and rallying supporters to their cause in response to the perceived injustice. Similar responses can be seen to Guantanamo Bay today in the Muslim world. Moreover, the confidence of ordinary citizens in their governments is undermined by such harsh measures, reducing their support for the overall "war effort". Indeed, if we compromise aspects of our free and open societies in response to pressure, then the terrorists who hate our values are winning.
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War? Can the "war on terror" be defined as "war", and with the special detention freedoms that this brings?

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Yes

The war on terror is not like past, conventional conflicts, and the executive branch should not be able to take wartime powers simply on its own declaration. The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 were horrific, but they did not threaten the entire life of the American nation - the economy has rebounded surprisingly quickly and no one believes that even a successful attack on the White House or Congress would have ended American democracy.

The war on terror is indeed a war with major threats that need protecting against. Just because our enemies do not wear uniforms or conform to a normal military structure (some indeed may even hold our own citizenship), does not make them any less of a threat to our society.

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No

The war on terror has no realistic end-game, making it impossible to define it as a war, which has a definite length. There is no likely endpoint at which we will be able to declare an enemy to have been defeated. This means that there is no foreseeable point at which any enemy could be declared defeated and at which "enemy combatants" could be allowed to go home. This makes it wrong to attempt to utilize the word "war" in the context the "war on terror" and the detention of "enemy combatants".


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Intelligence sources: Is the secretive trial of detainees justified by the interest in protecting intelligence sources?

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Yes

At a time when our society is under threat, it is more important to protect our intelligence sources than it is to try and punish individual terrorists. Even when strong proof exists, charging and trying terror suspects in open court would require governments to reveal their intelligence sources. This would risk the identification of their spies in foreign countries and within dangerous organisations. Not only might this lead to the murder of brave agents, it would also shut off crucial intelligence channels that could warn us of future attacks. Even if special arrangements were made to present intelligence evidence in court, hostile organisations would be able to work out how much or little western intelligence services know about them, and the manner in which they operate. In these circumstances, detention without public trial is the only safe option.

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No

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Write Subquestion here...

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Yes

Internet and tough measures within are aimed only at very few suspects with little major impact. ; only 11 are currently detained in Britain, only a few hundred at Guantanamo Bay. Exceptional circumstances call for special measures, but these are so limited in scope that they do not threaten our democratic values.

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No

Rights are needed to protect the few as well as the many, otherwise there would be no need for them in a democracy. Indefinite detention and lack of a normal public trial undermine the key values of habeas corpus and the presumption of innocence. Try suspects if there is evidence, and deport them if they are foreign nationals, but release them if a proper case cannot be made against them. Internment in Northern Ireland was also said to be aimed only at a tiny minority, but thousands passed through the Long Kesh detention camp in the four years it operated.

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Fair trials?: Are detainees given fair trial and rights in secret courts?

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Yes

Although a normal public trial is not possible for security reasons, detainees' rights are still respected. Safeguards are built into the internment process so that each case can be considered fairly, with the suspect represented before a proper tribunal and given a right to appeal to a higher authority. If a trial is held (often to standards of evidence and procedure higher than in normal courts in many countries around the world) and a sentence properly passed, then this is not internment as it has been practised in the past.

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No

Regardless of the procedures with which internment is dressed up by embarrassed authorities, it is open to abuse because trials are secret with the executive essentially scrutinising itself. Often there is not a free choice of lawyer to represent the suspect (detainees before US Military Commissions can only choose lawyers approved by the executive). Trials are held in secret with crucial evidence frequently withheld from the accused and his defence team, or given anonymously with no opportunity to examine witnesses properly. Appeals are typically to the executive (which chose to prosecute them), rather than to an independent judicial body. In such circumstances prejudice and convenience are likely to prevent justice being done.

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Human rights and moral authority: Is detention consistent with the maintenance of human rights and the moral authority of liberal democracies?

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Yes

Continued detention is sometimes elected by detainees over deportation, which makes it ok in these instances. The measures taken by the UK government to detain foreign nationals identified by intelligence as a serious threat to Britain are justified by conflicting priorities. In normal circumstances such people would be deported to their home countries, but asylum rules prevent the forced deportation of people to countries which might persecute them. Those detained in the UK are in fact free to leave if they can find a country to take them, and indeed two of the original thirteen detainees have done so. The remaining eleven are in effect choosing to remain in detention here. Rather than removing completely the government's power to deport foreign nationals who pose a threat, this is the best solution from a human rights point of view.

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No

Compromising our usual high standards of human rights encourages bad behaviour by other countries. Governments with less concern for rights are reassured by the apparent failure of liberal democracy to address a terrorist threat, and feel justified in tightening up their own measures against individuals and groups perceived as a threat. Western governments, meanwhile, lose their moral ability to criticise abuses elsewhere. Overall, the cause of freedom suffers everywhere. This can be seen clearly in the actions of governments around the world since September 11 2001, where existing repressive measures have been justified in new ways as part of the war on terror, or new ones introduced in apparent response to it. Examples include China, Hong Kong, India and the regimes of Central Asia.

Motions:

  • This House believes that internment is sometimes justified
  • This House would choose the lesser of two evils
  • This House supports Guantanamo Bay
  • This House would detain terror suspects

In legislation, policy, and the real world:

See also

External links and resources:

Books:

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