My old dad always told me that, in politics, talk is cheap. You judge people by their actions, not their words. That is why I am not particularly hopeful when it comes to Obama closing Guantanamo Bay prison. This week, at the White House, the President stated the controversial jail was “not necessary to keep America safe.” He went on to explain why he feels it should close: “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts.” At no point did the President cite its gross immorality or its illegality under international law as factors, rather, it is simply a costly public relations nightmare for Washington. Obama appears quite happy to hold people without trial around the world, in less infamous jails. Indeed, in 2009, the Obama administration planned to simply transfer the Guantanamo inmates to a small prison in rural Illinois, far from the eyes of the foreign press.
Obama's announcement comes in response to a mass hunger strike, now in its third month, which has led to growing international scrutiny of the cruel and unusual conditions at the prison. Increasing numbers of people are questioning why the US has a base there at all.
Back to History Class
The US intervened in the Cuban War of Independence, forcing the Spanish out, making way for US business interests. They pressurised exhausted Cuba into granting all manner of concessions, including signing a lease to allow the US to use the port as a coaling station. This coaling station evolved into a military base, and, eventually, what we have now. This despite strong protests from the Cuban government.
Described as the “gulag of our times” by Amnesty International, inmates are subjected to psychological, physical and sexual torture. “They used dogs on us” says Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj, released after six years without charge. “They beat me, sometimes they hung me from the ceiling and didn't allow me to sleep for six days.” Violence is so prevalent that even the guards are not immune. In 2003, Sean Baker, an undercover US National Guardsman playing the role of a prisoner in a training exercise, was beaten so violently he suffered serious brain damage. Before his election, President Obama promised he would do everything in his power to close the unpopular prison. He even signed an order to close it in 2009, which was, after congressional and Republican opposition, dropped.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 800 people have been incarcerated at the jail, including at least 21 children like Canadian citizen Omar Khadr. Today, there are still 166 inmates from 23 countries. 86 of them were cleared for release in 2009 but remain interned. Even according to the Obama administration, 92% of the inmates have never been Al-Qaeda operatives. Only 12 are even accused of terrorism. The Bush administration released 532 inmates, Obama, just 72. Those that are charged will be taken to the Orwellian-named “Camp Justice”, to receive a military tribunal.
Despite his carefully chosen words about freedom and peace, President Obama has intensified the war in Afghanistan, violated Pakistan and Yemen's national sovereignty with drone attacks, and continued to interfere in Americans' privacy at home. The sad truth is Obama's major achievement in human rights is to make George Bush seem like a civil libertarian. Until the President backs up his rosy words with concrete action, there is little reason to rejoice. The message should be “Guantanamo needs to close, yes, but what about dozens of other detention centres round the world which have brought shame to America?”
A wise man once said “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Time will tell if we are all being fooled again.