HAS the evil icon faded away from human memory? Perhaps not! The evil has always enjoyed a short expiration date in our memory bins. Not many years ago, the Guantanamo prison camp was originally dubbed as the military camp ‘X-ray’ located not far from the southern coast of Florida. Just to refresh our short memory, this unlawful, offshore prison was opened in January 2002. The brazen force and the sheer absence of the moral validity of the creators, United States, that came to be internationally criticised was unprecedented in its intensity.
Some of the loudest complaints came from the staunchest of US allies, the United Kingdom, where three cabinet ministers Robin Cook, Patricia Hewitt and Jack Straw expressed concern that international agreements about the treatment of prisoners of war were being breached. Then, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, also seriously objected to the establishment of this camp and called on president George W Bush’s administration to follow the Geneva Conventions.
In a column published a few years ago, the British independent Robinson argued that in the light of the Afghanistan conflict, this matter had acquired international attention — ‘the law of international armed conflict applies here, in the case of that evil prison camp’. She took this issue very seriously vis-à-vis the administration’s assertion that the prisoners were ‘unlawful combatants’ and, thus, fell within the purview outside of the protections guaranteed by the Geneva Conventions.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Javier Solana also remarked that ‘despite the atrocities of 9/11, changing the western values and their ways of life would be deemed as terrorism’s first major victory.’
If my memory goes right, the Amnesty International also expressed its concern about the matter of the tactics being used and the secrecy that shrouded the camp. The human rights advocacy group reminded us of the questionable practices of ‘Keeping prisoners incommunicado, sensory deprivation, the use of unnecessary restraint and the humiliation of people through tactics such as shaving them, were all classic techniques employed to “break” the spirit of individuals ahead of interrogation.’
The International Committee of the Red Cross, in an unusual deviation from its practice of not publicly criticising detaining governments, affirmed that the United States might have just violated Geneva Convention rules against making a spectacle of prisoners by distributing pictures of the detainees being subjected to sensory deprivation. These alarming pictures were published worldwide.
The noted British human rights attorney Stephen Solley once stated that the treatment of the suspects was ‘so far removed from human rights norms that it (was) difficult to comprehend.’
Seven years later, just two days into his administration, president Barack Obama’s announcement that he would close the Guantanamo camp was greeted with international praise equally intense. An executive order was signed by president Obama on January 22, 2009, which seemed to unambiguously mandate the closure of Guantanamo within a year:
‘The detention facilities at Guantanamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order. If any individuals covered by this order remain in detention at Guantanamo at the time of closure of those detention facilities, they shall be returned to their home country, released, transferred to a third country, or transferred to another United States detention facility in a manner consistent with law and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.’
Michele Cercone, spokesperson for the European Union Justice and Home Affairs Commission, also pointed out at the time that the commission had been very pleased that one of the first actions of Obama had also been to turn the page on the sad episode of Guantanamo.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay also praised Obama’s executive order, saying that it was a good day for the rule of law. The fact that president Obama placed such a high priority on closing Guantanamo and set in motion a system to safeguard the fundamental rights of the detainees there was, indeed, extremely encouraging for all observers around the world.
It is noticeable in 2019, on the occasion of Guantanamo’s 17-year anniversary and nearly 10 years after president Obama’s executive order had been signed, there was a palpable sense of disappointment and betrayal from the human rights community. The United States found itself on the receiving end of very familiar criticism of its indefinite detention policies with human rights organisations and intergovernmental bodies that had also renewed their complaints: that for the past 17 years, the US had flouted international human rights standards in its practices at the notorious prison camp.
Let us also remind readers that Human Rights Watch opposed the prolonged, indefinite detention without trial of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere. The group had also reminded the US of its obligations to prosecute terrorist suspects and to compensate detainees who had been wrongly imprisoned and mistreated over the past decade.
The practice of indefinite detention had violated US obligations under international law. Human Rights Watch strongly urged the US government to either promptly prosecute the remaining Guantanamo detainees keeping international fair trial standards or safely repatriate the detainees to their homes or in third countries.
They also called for investigations of US officials implicated in torture of terrorism suspects and for adequate compensation for detainees who were mistreated. Human Rights Watch continued to press for compliance with these obligations. Failure to do so caused enormous damage to the rule of law both in the US and abroad.
On the eve of Guantanamo’s anniversary, the Amnesty International said, ‘Guantanamo had once politicised justice internationally, by portraying detainees to have no human rights.’
The legacy of the Guantanamo Bay prison was a period of indignity and colossal damage to human rights not only in the United States but also across the world.
By creating an institution to vindicate themselves, Americans generally were known to speak the language of human rights fluently on the global forum but stumbled badly when it came to applying human rights standards to themselves. The Bush administration promised to put human rights at the centre of its counter-terrorism strategy, but singularly failed to do so.
The former Obama administration went further to promise the same thing but the United States continued to fall short of this commitment despite what had been undoubtedly the positive initial steps in the right direction.
Let us not forget from day one, the US government failed to recognise the applicability of human rights law to the Guantanamo detentions and detainees.
Ambassador Janez Lenarcic, the director of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights also expressed dismay over the failure to close the Guantanamo facility:
‘Universal human rights standards require that the detention of terrorist suspects shall be accompanied by concrete charges and the persons detained under these charges shall be immediately informed of them and brought before a competent judicial authority’ stated the learned Lenarcic.’
Can we deny the fact that in creating the Guantanamo Bay facilities, a superpower government fostered the culture of hatred, prejudices and serious human rights violations? It managed to create among the operators — the ‘dancing devils’ of Guantanamo, dehumanising their captives in the meanest of methods ever imagined.
As a participating state of the OSCE, the United States committed itself to respect human rights in the fight against terrorism and to ensure the right to a fair trial within a reasonable time before an independent and impartial tribunal. In the OSCE Bucharest Document of 2001, participating states expressed their determination to protect their citizens from security challenges such as terrorism while safeguarding the rule of law, individual liberties and the right to equal justice under law.
Lenarcic regretted that the practice of indefinite detention without trial had also been codified into US law, with the adoption of the 2012 National Defence Authorisation Act.
He also called for a swift closure of the Guantanamo detention centre and urged the authorities to prosecute promptly, the remaining Guantanamo detainees in accordance with law.
I relate a relevant human story. Moazzam Begg, a 43-year-old British Muslim who was wrongly detained at Guantanamo for three years until British authorities negotiated his release in January 2005, is more than despondent about the prospects of closing the prison camp.
‘Gitmo will never close. That is a fantasy,’ Begg recently told CNN. ‘I’ve stopped wishing for it. Even if it closes its doors, it will be only symbolic. The detainees who are still there will go somewhere else, to be held and be treated possibly worse, and still not get their time in court. And Gitmo, in a way, will always remain open. It will be in my memory, in my head, just like everyone else who experienced that hell.’
Colonel Morris Davis, a chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Bay during the Bush administration, once concurred with Moazzam Begg, saying that Obama really did not have the guts to close Guantanamo.
Evil, regardless of its monstrous domination, has always had a comparatively short life span. The reason: it must fade away. So has the memory of the dancing devils of Guantanamo? Let us not forget that we not only created a bad precedent in Guantanamo but a monster in our thought and practices of legal detention.
God bless America’s defenders of law!
Nazarul Islam is a former educator, based in Chicago.
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