The illegal prison camp at Guantánamo Bay opened its doors for business in its present incarnation on 11 January 2002. Alleged to be the “worst of the worst”, many prisoners have been held beyond the confines of the law for 10 years now. Over that time, Guantánamo has successfully managed to avoid ever falling within the bounds of the norms and practices of international law.
Many myths concerning the prisoners have been debunked, yet Guantánamo itself has become a synonym for torture, arbitrary detention and illegality. It is perhaps the most powerful and flagrant symbol of injustice this century.
It was long considered yet another disastrous and misguided policy of the Bush administration. Hope of the restoration of the rule of law and human rights was revived in 2008 when Barack Obama made the closure of Guantánamo a prominent feature of his election campaign, promising to wipe this embarrassing stain off the political landscape.
Hopes were raised further when some of his first actions as president were to suspend military commissions and sign a decree ordering the closure of Guantánamo Bay by January 2010. Almost two years later and with 171 prisoners remaining, that clearly has not happened.
The Obama administration instead followed hot on the heels of the previous administration, sticking closely to its policies. Under Obama’s leadership, very few prisoners have left Guantánamo, military commissions have been reinstated, convictions have been made on the basis of torture evidence and the first war crimes tribunal involving offences allegedly committed by a minor since World War II has been held. Beyond Guantánamo, Bagram, where the nightmare began for most of the prisoners, has quadrupled in prisoner capacity.
To make sure there is no going back, Barack Obama has chosen to mark the tenth anniversary of Guantánamo Bay by ensuring that it will not close any time soon. On 31 December 2011, he signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act 2012 (NDAA), which essentially makes the regime of indefinite detention without charge or trial there legal. What he had once called a “misguided experiment” is now official policy and Obama has reneged completely on pledges he had made earlier. Passing the buck appears to be the way his and possibly future administrations plan to deal with the issue.
The future is as unpredictable for Guantánamo’s current prisoners as it has ever been. What appears certain, however, is that unlike previously, Guantánamo Bay and other prisons like it will play a peripheral role in the US presidential elections scheduled for later this year, if they feature as an issue at all. Plans for military commissions have been put back until after the elections and it is unlikely that any prisoners will be released before it.
President Obama is not alone in uttering hollow words and sentiments about Guantánamo Bay. Over the past decade, the prison has been subject to widespread criticism from all corners and condemnation from world leaders; Tony Blair called it an “anomaly.” However, this has not translated into many serious offers from other states to help close the facility.
In spite of its stated intention, after more than a decade of illegal detention, the British government has failed to reunite British resident Shaker Aamer with his family in south London, even though he has never been charged or tried. No reason has ever been given for his continuing detention by the US. Britain could and should also use its special relationship to offer a home to prisoners like Ahmed Belbacha, previously resident in the UK, who have no safer alternative to Guantánamo.
The passage of time, the apparent normalisation of the abnormal and its codification in law do not suddenly make the indefensible defensible. The campaign to close Guantánamo will go on. The failure of politicians to rise to the challenge in over ten years means that ordinary people should take the lead in defending those values and principles protected by law for centuries which are far too precious to be undone in such a short space of time for what appears to be little more than political expediency.