Class Debates US Drone Strikes
University of St. Thomas students in the international law class recently argued the legality under international law of the United States’ drone use as an anti-terrorism weapon abroad before a four-judge panel in a mock hearing of the International Court of Justice in a class held April 29.
Under the guidance of Dr. Richard Sindelar, assistant professor of international studies, the students’ arguments focused on the recently-released U.S Department of Justice’s “White Paper,” which laid out the rationale for permitting drone strikes, and especially the legality of U.S. drones targeting U.S. citizens who are associated with organizations deemed to be terrorist, such as Al-Qaida and the Taliban.
Sitting as international judges in the mock ICJ hearing of the case “Pakistan v. U.S.,” were two real-life prestigious visitors from Turkey’s court system: the Honorable Mesut Gurlevik, a sitting administrative law Judge in the Ankara District Administrative Court under the Republic of Turkey’s High Council of Judges and Prosecutors, and Nazir Kus, a prosecutor in the same Council.
Terence O’Rourke, assistant Harris County attorney to Vincent Ryan and a former adjunct professor of international law at UST’s Center for International Studies, also served on the mock panel. Sindelar sat as “chief judge” for the evening.
“The concept was to introduce both upper-level undergraduate and Master in Liberal Arts students to the nature of real court battle on an issue of importance,” Sindelar said. “The students took the exercise very seriously and spent considerable time preparing their briefs to the court and coordinating arguments.”
Student participants for Pakistan were Evelyn Turcio, Jesse Roberts, Marla Beltran and Nadeen Mustafa. For the United States, the students were Sarah Phillips, Chelsea Ferramosca, Jorge Perez-Olascoaga, Richard Cantu and Denise Moreno.
Key issues in play included whether the drone strikes on a hypothetical meeting of Taliban leaders in a small Pakistani village violated Pakistan’s sovereignty under international law, or had the Pakistani government given prior consent as a matter of policy. Other issues included who may be considered a “combatant” under the Geneva Convention rules on warfare, and potential violations and liability under international human rights law when civilians are killed in such a strike.
The students also addressed whether a hypothetical U.S. citizen, working with the Taliban as an online Imam could be targeted under international law, under the arguments in the DOJ “White Paper.”
Ferramosca, a senior international studies major, said the experience was challenging.
“I was on the side of the United States, so I argued that drone use is legal for our nation's security,” Ferramosca said. “It was intimidating to give an argument in front of the judges, because they are all so experienced and knowledgeable about international law, but it motivated us to create the best arguments we could. They would interrupt us constantly to challenge what we were saying, and even though we all got frustrated at it, we realized that this is what happens in a real court. The lawyers have to respect the judges and listen to what they are saying, even if they don't agree.”
Ferramosca said she was specifically challenged by O’Rourke, who mentioned the case was a difficult one.
“I was impressed with the manner in which the students handled the complexity of their arguments,” O’Rourke said.
Ferramosca was grateful for the experience even though it was a challenge.
“It was not easy and extremely nerve wracking, but probably one of the best experiences I have had in any of my classes,” she said. “Dr. Sindelar is a great professor, and it shows in how he gets us all to think and jump into these experiences.”
Pictured (left to right):
Photo One: Richard Cantu
Photo Two: Nadeen Mustafa