COURTESY OF U.S. Mission / Eric Bridiers
By Nicholas Devyatkin
When I heard that Harold Koh, legal scholar turned drone defender, would be the Washington College of Law commencement speaker, I was shocked.
Koh has an illustrious career and is famous for being a long-time human rights lawyer and advocate. He once referred to President George W. Bush as the "torturer in chief." Sounds good.
Until 2010, when, as State Department legal adviser, he gave a speech defending the legality of the Obama administration's targeted killing program.
Koh's speech had a lot of problems, doctrinally and factually. If you assume that administration talking points are "facts," then maybe there is no problem.
For us fancy academics who like to read those pesky little things called "studies," I suggest people look at a recent report, titled "Living Under Drones," put together by the Stanford Law School's International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic (IHRCRC) and the Global Justice Clinic at the New York University School of Law.
Along with the physical destruction and civilian deaths, the report documents how the policy "terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities." Elders are scared to meet to resolve village disputes, parents are frightened to send their children to school, and aid workers delay emergency care because of reports of "double-tap strikes": in a second go-around, rescue workers are themselves targeted by the drones.
Besides the humanitarian concerns, the attacks are likely counter-productive. In his Senate testimony, Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi pointed out that the attacks are a vital recruiting tool, saying that, "what the radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant."
I wasn't the only one angry. Two wonderful friends and allies, EmilyRose Johns and Rebecca Heinsen, both Class of 2013, were furious.
How could we invite somebody who defended the drone policy? Are we not the human rights and international law school? What kind of message are we sending to the graduating class? The legal community? The world?
They drafted a letter protesting the choice with a call for signatures. After meeting with the SBA president, and commentary from WCL Dean Claudio Grossman, it became clear that because of bureaucratic hoops, time constraints, and maybe the heavy politics of the matter, the speaker would not be changed.
I would have opposed Koh on moral and political grounds. Thanks to the excellent legal education I received at WCL, I can also deconstruct his legal position.
Some have said that, as a government official, he probably felt obligated to take such a stance. Great message to send to a group of graduating law students: feel free to fudge the law to suit political ends and to satisfy your boss.
Cue the snickering: of course lawyers do that! You're right. They do.
But WCL was supposed to be better than that. Few people blink an eye when I tell them where I attend law school. Except when the conversation turns to international law and human rights.
WCL is the "hippy-dippy, liberal school." Yea, we are those people. The human rights advocates, anti-death penalty advocates, the defenders of the indigent and the youth, the environmentalists, the warriors for the underpaid, the exploited and the oppressed. Many of us came to WCL specifically to work with some of the finest human rights advocates in the world, including Grossman, chair of the United Nations Committee against Torture.
We are supposed to have some values (and if not values, at least a brand). There is one value in particular: human rights. A school with our reputation should always err on the side of human rights. It's pretty simple: When in doubt, human rights.
Those who are interested in reading and/or signing the petition can do so here.
Nicholas Devyatkin is in the graduating Class of 2013 at the Washington College of Law. The 2013 commencement ceremony is May 19 at 1 p.m.