A year ago today, President Obama launched the most recent of his initiatives to close Guantánamo. He was speaking at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, Washington DC. It was an awkward moment for a major defence policy speech.
Drone strikes had put a strain on US relations with Pakistan. For nearly 6 weeks, the US had been observing an undeclared drone ceasefire in Pakistan, apparently out of respect for the elections there. The end of the ceasefire was less than a week away. At Guantánamo, the prisoners’ hunger strike was at a peak and had received a good deal of media attention. So a careful speech was needed, combining robust defence of US policy with a convincing acknowledgement of the suffering that it created.
Barack Obama’s speech was a good one, in its way. The kind of speech that a patriotic but idealistic student might have delivered in a debate at an Ivy League university.
Maybe Obama’s speechwriters don’t spend too much time talking to his policy advisers.
Towards the end of the speech Code Pink activist Medea Benjamin interrupted to point out that 102 prisoners were on hunger strike. The President said “I’m willing to cut the young lady who interrupted me some slack” – rather an impertinent remark in view of the prodigious quantity of slack that he had himself enjoyed over the years.
Obama used his speech to criticise the various measures introduced by Republicans in Congress to impede the wind-down of Guantánamo. But it isn’t very hard to open a prison door. Certainly not for a Commander-in-Chief and President with the near-absolute authority to order the assassination of a US citizen or the incineration of a home in Pakistan.
Obama even went so far as to speak out loud the words of his inner sophomore: “GTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.”
And he announced some steps that looked a little like a practical programme directed towards closing Guantánamo.
He said: “I am appointing a new, senior envoy at the State Department and Defense Department whose sole responsibility will be to achieve the transfer of detainees to third countries. I am lifting the moratorium on detainee transfers to Yemen, so we can review them on a case by case basis. To the greatest extent possible, we will transfer detainees who have been cleared to go to other countries.”
Since then, 12 prisoners have been released. 154 remain in detention, including Shaker Aamer from London. None have been tried. Most have been in illegal detention – illegal by international standards, that is – for over 12 years.
That isn’t progress. So demonstrations are being held today in over 40 cities around the world – but mostly in the USA – to demand the closure of Guantánamo.
Obama’s 2013 initiative to close Guantánamo wasn’t his first apparent attempt at the job. Immediately after his inauguration as President in January 2009 he issued an executive order calling for Guantánamo to be closed within a year. But he stopped short of calling for a complete end to detention without trial. It should not have been hard to foresee that trying to close Guantánamo while at the same time trying to keep some prisoners in indefinite detention was likely to create unmanageable difficulties.
Nor should it have been hard to foresee that problems were likely to be stirred up by the numerous US officials for whom illegality had become the new normal. After all, an official admission of the criminality of Guantánamo could have left them facing charges. This was a problem that Obama could have tackled in the first months of his presidency, backed by the tidal wave of support that had brought him to the White House. But it was not likely to be easily surmounted once the Democrats’ party machine had stood the activists down, and disillusion had begun to set in.
I don’t believe that a naive man is likely to become President of the USA. So I don’t believe Barack Obama is serious about closing Guantánamo.
Today’s global protests are being spearheaded by campaigners in the US. That’s good, because Obama probably isn’t very interested in foreign protesters. But it should be clear by now that the obstacles we are all facing – inside or outside the US – are formidable. It would help if those of us outside the US could compel our governments to give a little support to our efforts in defence of international law.
Governments and law courts around the world acknowledge that Guantánamo is unacceptable. But they do so by ring-fencing the Guantánamo legal black hole so that the rest of their business with the US can continue unimpeded. Courts in Britain would refuse to extradite a terrorist suspect to the US if they believed that the suspect was at risk of being sent to Guantánamo. But a simple note from the US saying that this will not happen is all it takes to make the problem go away. And the ring-fence is fitted with comfortable side-doors that allow the functionaries of Britain’s secret state to come and go almost as they please.
In other words, Britain is putting no pressure at all on the US to mend its ways.
The US is too big, too rich and too trigger-happy to be ostracised by the rest of the world. But most countries aren’t even trying to push the boundaries of what they can accomplish. Britain certainly isn’t. It is too busy playing jackal to the US lion.
If Scotland wins its independence before the Guantánamo prisoners go free, we could behave differently. We could impose modest but real penalties on the US. We could reduce cooperation in law-enforcement, intelligence-sharing, and defence unless the US complies with international human rights standards. But we probably won’t. Not unless those of us who care about human rights raise our game.
The SNP intends to keep Scotland in NATO if Scotland becomes independent. Scotland’s National Action Plan for Human Rights – approved unanimously by the Scottish Parliament last year – tiptoes gently around the various elephants brought into our sitting room by the war on terror. It takes very little interest in forms of oppression actively perpetrated by the state, and instead pursues softer targets. It prefers consensus to the enforcement of rights. A recent initiative by Amnesty International to put human rights at the centre of Scotland’s referendum debate asks politicians to sign up to principles so general that they should cause no discomfort at all to anyone in power.
The history of Guantánamo should make it clear this is not nearly enough. Anyone who doubts that should re-read the speech Barack Obama gave at Fort McNair a year ago today. Good intentions are the clothes that torturers and assassins wear in liberal democracies.