Grand Opening Conference for the West Point Center for the Rule of Law

Grand Opening Conference for the West Point Center for the Rule of Law

[Major John C. Dehn is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Law, US Military Academy, West Point, NY. He teaches International Law, and Constitutional and Military Law. He is writing in his personal capacity and his views do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the US Army, or the US Military Academy.]

First, I express my thanks to Opinio Juris for permitting me to comment on recent events here at West Point in my personal capacity as an international law scholar and U.S. citizen.

Last week saw the Grand Opening Conference of the West Point Center for the Rule of Law at the United States Military Academy. Due to funding by The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, future officers attending all four U.S. service academies had the opportunity to spend three days immersed in examining “The Future of International Criminal Justice,” the conference’s focus. Featuring leading scholars, jurists, practitioners, policy-makers and diplomats from around the world, some of the U.S. military’s future leaders considered the role of international criminal justice in maintaining the rule of law both nationally and internationally.

Topics the first day included the International Criminal Court, the challenges to future U.S. participation in it, and alternative venues for securing international criminal justice. A constant theme was the not only the high promise but also the practical limits of international criminal law to maintaining the rule of law and vindicating the rights of victims. At lunch, former President of Ireland and UN Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson stressed the importance of these issues. At dinner, Attorney General Holder stressed the tough decisions the administration is undertaking to address in a principled manner based on the rule of law.

The second day focused on the challenges to helping and empowering those suffering the most in societies that fail to maintain the rule of law: the poor, women and children. Dan Rather stated during his keynote address that it had been his experience that these are also the victims of war most in need of the protection of law. Her Majesty Queen Noor (wife of the late King Hussein of Jordan) emphasized the unique perspectives and strengths these groups provide when empowered to govern – to assist in maintaining the rule of law. Finally, the conference examined various aspects of the U.S. responses to terrorism and the difficult questions that have been raised, some that have been answered, and the many that remain. Panelists and participants examined the strengths and weaknesses of approaching terrorism with the laws governing armed conflict rather than the law governing crimes and human rights.

In my humble opinion, this is a time for optimism. That West Point sees the rule of law as so important, so essential to its missions to “educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets” and to create “leader[s] of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation” is no small event. Part of the time-honored traditions and values of West Point are based on the rule of law. All cadets are already required to take a course in Constitutional and Military Law before graduation. The Center for the Rule of Law provides an additional opportunity for them to study and consider the importance of law to their future service in the military, including the meaning of their oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

This optimism, however, must remain cautious optimism. The Center is what is called a “margin of excellence” program at West Point. This means that its survival depends upon securing adequate funding to continue its mission. As the defense budget dwindles, I am sure that both the Department of Law and West Point hope that others will quickly see the value in funding the Center and its mission.

Whatever the future brings to this Center, U.S. residents and citizens would have been proud of the challenging and insightful questions raised by the future leaders of its military. Although many West Point cadets have not even taken a course (my course) in international law, an elective unless one is an International and Comparative Legal Studies major, these future leaders quickly grasped the conceptual issues raised by the panelists and probed for clarifications and deeper understanding. Said one panelist, a prosecutor in international tribunals and former officer in the UK army:
“I was astonished how well-informed your cadets were about the world. With strong opinions and no fear to speak up or speak out even with their tender years. Thank goodness, I thought, that all this military might will one day be resting on such well informed and honourable young officers.”

While I can in no way speak for the Department of Defense, U.S. Army or U.S. Military Academy at West Point, I can say that I am honored and proud to be teaching the young men and women filling their ranks. I am also thankful to be living in a country that allows me to express my personal and academic opinions publicly in spite of my position as an instructor here. I’d be happy to address questions the Opinio Juris readership might have regarding the conference and West Point to the best of my ability.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell


I’m delighted Opinio Juris invited you here as I’ve learned much from your comments (at Opinio Juris and EJIL Talk!) and several things you’ve written that I’ve read.

Some of the points you make remind me of similar remarks I once heard from Nancy Sherman about teaching ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy. I was quite moved by her account of the curiosity, interest, and passion for the subject matter she discovered among her students. And I had never thought very deeply about the ethical challenges and dilemmas that members of the armed services are often faced with.

My question is a bit off topic but not unrelated to the conference subject matter and that is whether or not West Point teaches introductory courses in worldviews and traditions not of Judeo-Christian provenance (especially in light of offering a major in International and Comparative Legal Studies).

Patrick S. O'Donnell

Thanks John. And I appreciate the link to the website, which I’ll take a look at.

CDR James Carlson

Congratulations on the successful conference.  Three cadets from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy had the good fortune to attend, and all three sought me out to tell me about it.   The cadets, who will be commissioned as Ensigns within the month, all recounted the thought provoking panels and engaging discourse.  Well done, and we at USCGA look forward to continued affiliation with USMA!
CDR J. D. Carlson
Chief, Law Section
Department of Humanities
U.S. Coast Guard Academy  

Udi Ofer
Udi Ofer

The opening conference of West Point’s Center for the Rule of Law could not have come at a better time in our nation’s history.   I’ve worked with individuals in the law department at West Point for a couple of years, and I’ve been impressed by their intellect, professionalism, and strong values.  It delights me to know that this same group of individuals, with their academic rigor and moral character, will now lead the Center for the Rule of Law. I attended the opening conference in my capacity as an attorney at the ACLU of New York who works on national security matters.  In my work, I have come to respect greatly the opinions of individuals who have lived through the day-to-day implications of policy decisions that are made by those sitting in Washington DC.  Their perspective is invaluable, and unfortunately, their perspective has not been adequately represented in the current national discourse on civil liberties and security policies. West Point’s Center for the Rule of Law will fill this national void.  Such a Center has the competency, and respect, to bring together individuals working on national security matters from all perspectives: from the federal judge adjudicating terrorism cases and the… Read more »


One small matter:

“As the defense budget dwindles, I am sure that both the Department of Law and West Point hope that others will quickly see the value in funding the Center and its mission.”