Mali Conflict Reopens Debate on Detention of Terrorist Suspects

Mali Conflict Reopens Debate on Detention of Terrorist Suspects

Experts in national security law watched with interest when France intervened militarily against Islamic extremists in Mali earlier this year. Would France detain individuals that it and Malian forces had seized and, if so, how would it treat them? Would it follow the lead of the United States by holding the prisoners as enemy combatants? If not, how would France, or its Malian partners, treat those captured during the fighting?

France has thus far shown no desire to employ a Guantanamo-style solution. But it remains unclear whether prisoners will be prosecuted under Malian criminal law or handled in some other manner. According to one report, some prisoners are being held by a Tuareg militia formerly allied with the rebels that has pledged to convey to France information it obtains from key suspects. While it is too early to draw definitive conclusions, the French intervention in Mali highlights the continuing uncertainty surrounding the treatment of terrorism suspects arrested during military operations -- a question the United States has struggled with for more than a decade.

International law gives important but ultimately limited guidance. International humanitarian law (IHL) provides a comprehensive framework for detention in armed conflicts waged between nation-states. The 1949 Geneva Conventions, for example, provide detailed rules governing the detention and treatment of prisoners of war and civilians captured during international armed conflicts.

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