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“Is There Still a War on Terror?” Asks Human Rights Activist Gabor Rona ’78

September 20, 2012

Gabor Rona '78, the international legal director of Human Rights First, returned Sept. 13 to Vermont Law School, where he met with students, faculty, staff and the public to discuss "the most challenging legal topics of our time: human rights and counterterrorism."

Image of Gabor RonaAt the invitation of the VLS International Law Society, Rona delivered a speech titled "Is There Still a War on Terror? The Intersections of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in the Fight Against Terrorism." He urged attendees to consider whether Americans have abandoned the legal contours of the war on terror as set out by the Bush administration for "practices that are consistent with our international legal obligations."

From targeted killings to U.S. detention policy, Rona outlined areas where the United States continues to fall short in applying the appropriate legal frameworks. On the use of drones, the problem lies, he said, "in taking traditional concepts of targetability applicable in traditional wars between states where 'membership' in the armed forces is clear and to today's nontraditional conflicts where the distinctions between civilian and fighter are less clear."

On U.S. detention policy, Rona reminded the audience of the continued challenges faced by detainees in U.S. custody at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan. "In Bagram [Afghanistan], where there is no habeas, I witnessed what passes for due process," he said. "Detainees have no counsel, do not see the evidence, cannot realistically call witnesses and their fate is decided by the same authorities responsible for their capture and detention.

"Some states bristle at the idea of treating terrorism as war rather than crime," he said. "They dispute the broad claims of the U.S. that it can apply the less protective framework of the Law of Armed Conflict to its battle against terrorism rather than the more protective framework of Human Rights Law. I have a pretty simple idea of who's right. I think you can have wars against proper nouns but not common nouns. Germany and Japan can surrender and promise not to do it again. Terrorism can not. So, you can't have a war against terrorism, but you can have a war in which terrorism is a feature."

Rona urged VLS students to consider the entirety of U.S. counterterrorism policy and the rise of the place of the individual as a subject and object of public international law. During his visit, he also met with students to provide career advice, encouraging them to remain engaged in current events, consider humanitarian aid work or other pathways to international legal professions, take time to learn which lawyers or organizations are doing what and approach opportunities with the enthusiasm.

Today, as a leading international lawyer, Rona advises Human Rights First on international law, coordinates international human rights litigation and represents the organization with governments, intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations, the media, and the public on matters of international human rights and international humanitarian law. Rona was previously a legal advisor at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.

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