Guantanamo, 14 Years and Counting

01/10/2016 03:23 pm ET | Updated Jan 10, 2016
  • Daphne Eviatar Senior Counsel, Law and Security Program, Human Rights First
Chip Somodevilla via Getty Images

Fourteen years ago this Monday, President George W. Bush opened the Guantanamo Bay detention center as an emergency measure to hold and interrogate men suspected of participation in the September 11 attacks and the subsequent fight against the United States in Afghanistan. Intended to operate beyond the reach of U.S. law, the offshore prison at the United States' naval base in Cuba soon became known for its abuses of human rights, including torture and ongoing indefinite detention without charge or trial. Not surprisingly, it quickly became the focus of rallying cries from al Qaeda, with anti-U.S. propaganda featuring Guantanamo and its notorious orange jumpsuits beginning as early as February 2002. Military and national security experts agree it has become severely detrimental to U.S. interests.

Over the last fourteen years, the United States has learned it cannot invade countries in the Middle East and expect to remake them in our image. President Obama has struggled to re-situate the United States as a supporter of regional allies fighting al Qaeda and the Islamic State, or ISIS, rather than placing the U.S. military on the front lines. But due to Congressional obstruction and a lack of decisive action on the president's part, the Guantanamo detention center remains open -- and remains a thorn in the side of the U.S. attempt to remake its image as well as its Middle East foreign policy. It's now up to President Obama to explain to Congress and the American people why that's unacceptable. Seven years after promising to close the prison in Cuba, he needs to finally present his plan for exactly how he intends to do that.

Guantanamo is not only a symbol of the U.S. failure to fully change course, it is also an ongoing human rights tragedy where the United States continues to imprison 104 men indefinitely, most without charge or trial. The U.S. State Department regularly criticizes other countries for similar conduct. That the United States continues to do it endangers not only the men unjustly imprisoned there, but the cause of human rights worldwide. What can U.S. condemnation of other nations' human rights abuses mean in the face of 14 years indefinite detention in an offshore prison of men not convicted of any crime?

Human rights groups have never been allowed to meet with detainees privately to evaluate their circumstances. Gen. John F. Kelly, the head of U.S. Southern Command and in charge of the Guantanamo base, has exacerbated the lack of transparency at the prison by making visits to the detention center more difficult for journalists, and for representatives from other countries considering accepting some of the detainees. Yet other nations' willingness to accept detainees is critical to closing Guantanamo.

The ongoing imprisonment of these men at the Guantanamo Bay detention center may work to the advantage of some members of Congress who, 14 years later, remain intent on playing the politics of fear. That's why the last National Defense Authorization Act maintained absurd restrictions on the transfer of detainees out of Guantanamo to third countries and prohibited transfers entirely into the United States, even for trial or continued detention. President Obama sees the damage it's doing, not only to the prisoners but also to U.S. global influence. As recently as December, he reiterated his commitment to closing the facility. He now needs to demonstrate he has the courage of his convictions.

To its credit, the White House has recently stepped up transfers of prisoners long cleared for release to other countries, and the Pentagon is slowly increasing the pace of hearings for those not yet cleared to leave. But President Obama needs to speed up the pace on both those fronts. He also needs to present publicly his long-awaited, detailed plan for closing the Guantanamo detention center -- a plan that he's repeatedly delayed, perhaps for fear of the Congressional response. Yet seven years after promising to close Guantanamo, Obama has less than a year left to follow through. He needs to make crystal clear -- in his upcoming State of the Union address and over the coming months -- why Congress, even if it won't affirmatively support him, should at the very least get out of his way.

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