A US diplomat has hinted that British prisoners in Camp Delta may soon be repatriated. That’s too little too late for human rights campaigners. As the Guantanamo Bay detention centre marks its second anniversary Kate Allen, director of Amnesty International UK, calls for immediate closure.
Today marks the second ‘anniversary’ of Guantanamo Bay, the moment the world first discovered that fighting the ‘war on terror’ would mean setting up unaccountable and inaccessible military prisons and filling them with hundreds of prisoners from all over the world.
This is two years too many. From the moment images of manacled and blindfold men kneeling in submission in orange boiler suits flashed around the world, the USA’s prestige took a nosedive.
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Human Rights Watch
In letter after letter to both the White House and Downing Street, Amnesty International has made the point that legal representation and fair trials should be the bottom line not just for the nine Britons in Guantanamo Bay, but for all 650-plus detainees held in Camp Delta without charge or trial.
With some of the Guantanamo prisoners now entering their third year of captivity without access to lawyers, and without charge or trial, the need for urgent moves to end this travesty of justice could not be clearer.
As a former lawyer himself, Prime Minister Tony Blair for one must surely realise that Guantanamo Bay is nothing short of a disgrace and that basic human rights need to be restored.
However, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has rejected concern about Guantanamo as “based on the shrill hyperventilation of a few people who didn’t know what they were talking about.”
Actually it is Mr Rumsfeld’s waspish remark that fails to convince. Did the United States really think that it could set up a modern gulag in defiance of decades of international legal standards and escape censure? In placing prisoners in the legal limbo of Guantanamo Bay’s ‘no-place’ – neither American soil nor Cuban jurisdiction – the American administration appears to have made the rash wager that legal untouchability would equal moral inviolability.
They have been proved staggeringly wrong. Criticism has poured in from such not especially shrill sources as the UN high commissioner for human rights, the Council of Europe, the Pope, a British law lord and countless people who have contacted Amnesty International. The Red Cross has taken the unusual step of going public about the deterioration in mental health it has witnessed among many of the Guantanamo detainees as a result of the indefinite and isolating incarceration regime.
Aside from how it may play in the United States itself, this has been disastrous human rights public relations for a country that has regularly promoted itself as a “beacon” for democracy, justice and the rule of law.
Ripping up the rulebook was hardly the right response when confronted by the grisly acts of a disaffected minority of extremists like al-Qaeda, who in any case recognise no rules. One can easily suppose that they have relished the sight of Muslims incarcerated in the Guantanamo dungeon, knowing that it provides them with fresh ‘evidence’ of what Osama bin Laden is pleased to call the “crusader-Zionist onslaught.”
Setting up Guantanamo Bay in January 2002 might have looked reasonable to some (it wasn’t), but the folly of disregarding human rights is now plain to see.
How to undo the damage?
This year the US Supreme Court is set to examine whether it should have jurisdiction over what takes place at Guantanamo Bay, a strip of land leased to the United States by Cuba.
If now the US belatedly sees fit to ensure that Guantanamo prisoners are either charged with recognisable criminal offences or released, that legal counsel is provided to all inmates (and interrogations meanwhile suspended), then much of the damage can be mended.
If instead the US intends to defy criticism and ignore court rulings, then its reputation can only sink further into the hole it has dug for itself.
Is America a big enough country to say that it was wrong on Guantanamo Bay?
• Kate Allen is director of Amnesty International UK