President Obama, Why Have You Forsaken Your Promise to Close Guantanamo?

01/11/2011 03:06 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bianca Jagger Founder and Chair, Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation

Bianca Jagger asks why President Obama has forsaken his promise to restore 'America's moral stature in the world,' on the ninth anniversary of the arrival at Guantánamo of the first prisoners and nearly two years after he pledged to close the prison camp within a year.

When President Obama was elected, he electrified people throughout the world, particularly the human rights community, by using his second day in office to issue executive orders to close the Guantánamo detention center and end torture and secret detention.

The order authorized: "The detention facilities at Guantánamo for individuals covered by this order shall be closed as soon as practicable, and no later than one year from the date of this order".

During his campaign, in an interview on 60 Minutes in November 2008, he declared: "I have said repeatedly that I intend to close Guantánamo and I will follow through on that ...This is part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral stature in the world." After the wilderness years of the Bush presidency, this seemed like the Promised Land. Except, of course, it wasn't.

What has followed has been an infinitely depressing departure from this promise and what it represented -- that the USA would try to repair some of the damage of George Bush's assault on the international rule of law, and human rights.

First there was the announcement in April 2009 that there were to be no prosecutions for those responsible for torture and secret detention despite declassified memoranda showing there had been a policy allowing the mistreatment of prisoners in CIA and US military custody, a policy approved at the highest governmental legal levels.

Then we had Obama's troubling National Archive speech on 21 May 2009. We were told that Guantánamo detainees were to be sorted into categories, with some earmarked for release, some for trial in federal courts on the US mainland, some for trial before widely-discredited "military commissions" at Guantánamo itself, but some others that were apparently doomed to remain behind bars without a trial indefinitely. The prospect of the United States instituting trial-less, indefinite detention is deeply shocking, but, as Karen Greenberg says, Obama appears to have no fundamental problem with it or the fact that it marks a disturbing continuation of a Bush-era policy.

Having famously promised Guantánamo's closure by January 2010, not only has Obama's administration broken this promise, it has now apparently reconciled itself to the dismal prospect of the camp remaining open for years to come -- as signalled by the president's signing into law -- albeit reluctantly -- of the National Defense Authorization Act at the weekend. There is now a block on moving prisoners to US soil, either for trial or what the president calls "rehousing"). Regrettably, the main route toward justice in the form of internationally-recognized trials has been barred.

Presently 173 so-called "enemy combatants" still languish at Guantánamo Bay, pending trial or release (of a total of 775 people brought to the camp since its inception). Both former detainees and Red Cross inspectors have spoken of the harrowing use of torture at that facility, including sleep deprivation, truth drugs and beatings. Amnesty International has called the conditions at Guantánamo "a human rights scandal"'

For the detainees still there the future has never looked more uncertain. Even where a country is willing to take a detainee off the US's hands -- as with former UK resident Shaker Aamer subject of a recent request from the UK's Foreign Secretary William Hague -- it's unclear whether the US authorities are willing or even capable of processing a prisoner's release. Paralysis seems to have set in.

Today -- the ninth "anniversary" of the arrival of the first cargo-load of orange jump-suited, shackled and blindfolded prisoners to this obscure naval base on 11 January 2002 -- should have been a day to celebrate the USA's recovery from the misbegotten Bush years. It should have been a day to chart the USA's return to the rule of law. Instead we have what Amnesty's Kate Allen rightly calls a "miserable milestone".

In fact not only is it a truly dreadful marker -- nine years of lawlessness of which the US authorities should be deeply ashamed -- it's doubly depressing as the milestone seems to offer no clue as to where the USA's disastrous experiment with ad hoc justice is taking us. Where is all this heading?

Since 9/11 the US government has sacrificed freedom, civil liberties and human rights for safety and security. But this reordering of priorities has not made our world any safer.

Liberty, the rule of law, due process, and judicial review should be the underpinning of our justice system. These values are what the terrorists hope to destroy. But if we curtail, suspend or eliminate the liberties enshrined in the US Constitution, the terrorists have won. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, 'He who would put security before liberty deserves neither.'

The central issue is still justice. Nine years after the arrival of the first prisoners at Guantánamo has President Obama failed to understand this simple truth?

When he was elected president, Barack Obama represented hope for the world and we all applauded his courageous decision to close the Guantánamo detention center. I cannot fathom why he seems to have forsaken his promise to restore 'America's moral stature in the world.'.

Bianca Jagger is a Member of the Executive Director's Leadership Council, Amnesty International, USA