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Guantanamo Bay: the shadow cast over the 'special relationship'

Guantanamo Bay is unlikely to be discussed by Cameron and Obama during the president's first state visit to the UK this week. Yet Britain could use our special relationship with the US to call for Obama to keep his promise, and close the detainment facility
Aisha Maniar
25 May 2011

There will no doubt be much for brothers in arms Barack Obama and David Cameron to discuss in official talks during Barack Obama’s first state visit to the UK this week. Guantánamo Bay, and the failure of the international community, and not just the US, to close it, may feature low on the agenda, if at all. Since Obama’s now infamous broken promise to close Guantánamo Bay by January last year, the matter has effectively become a non-issue. 

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Following recent Wikileaks revelations concerning British resident Shaker Aamer, the Foreign Office has said that, during this visit, William Hague will raise the issue of his release to the UK, where he has a British family, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Both he and Nick Clegg have already done this. After a decade without charge or trial and almost four years since his release to the UK was first sought by Gordon Brown, this is simply not going far enough. The time has come for matters to be dealt with at the highest levels in talks between President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron.

As the British government claims to believe “that the indefinite detention of detainees is unacceptable, and [that] we have repeatedly called for Guantanamo Bay to be closed”, Cameron’s calls can go far beyond the return of Shaker Aamer. Our “uniquely strong relationship”, mentioned by Clegg at the same time as raising Aamer’s case with Hillary Clinton, could be used to make good on that call to close Guantánamo. The international community colluded in the creation of this extra-legal monster and has a responsibility for its closure.

Part of this collective responsibility is the duty to accept individuals cleared for release at Guantánamo Bay, but who have no safe third country in which to be released. While the UK has accepted more prisoners than any other European state, they are all men with ties to the UK. Other European states have shown that prisoners with no ties to a country can be successfully integrated into a community and accepted on purely humanitarian grounds: Spain has accepted more than twice as many prisoners on this basis than it had in Guantánamo Bay [source: Reprieve].

The British government maintains that it is not “considering accepting any further individuals”; yet such a move would surely help our close American ally in its stated aim of closing the facility. A good first candidate for such a goodwill gesture would be Ahmed Belbacha, who had previously resided in the UK. Cleared for release in 2007 and never charged, he has remained at Guantánamo Bay for want of a safe third country to be released to. Having been tried and sentenced in absentia in his native Algeria, his life would be at risk if he was returned there, for which reason he fled in the first place. Just earlier this year, the US returned a prisoner to Algeria against his will. Belbacha is not alone in his predicament.

Obama’s visit presents a unique opportunity for the President and Prime Minister to discuss this critical and enduring stain on our contemporary landscape. In addition to Britain taking the measures outlined above, the two men have a duty to  discuss positive measures that would lead to the definitive closure of Guantánamo and other similar prisons and the regime of lawlessness and injustice they exemplify. Lawful solutions are the only kind that can be considered. If the British government is to be considered a major player on the world stage, this is the type of issue it has to be able to deal with. The world is not a Punch and Judy show, even though the belligerent and unlawful activity of these two leaders, parallel to that of their predecessors, tells us so. ”Plan for change?” “A change we can believe in?” It is time for Britain and the US to make good on their slogans.

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