President Obama said at his news conference yesterday, "I continue to believe that we've got to close Guantanamo." He then added, "Congress determined that they would not let us close it."
Unfortunately, the president's comments are misleading. Congress may have passed the legislation to make it more difficult to close Guantanamo, but President Obama signed it. And he signed it more than once. He signed it each time Congress renewed the legislation. In addition, Obama has refused to work with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to issue waivers that would allow for the release of prisoners, such as the 86 men who have been officially cleared for release years before.
Obama could have closed Guantanamo had he had the tenacity to follow through on his promise to close the detention facilities four years ago. Instead, not only did he not close Guantanamo but, three months ago, he shuttered the State Department office charged with finding homes for the men. He seems to have abandoned his commitment to close the detention facility.
And it is only because of a devastating hunger strike at the detention center -- a strike that is attracting global attention -- that caused the president to address the closure of Guantanamo in his press conference.
Since early February, the detainees in Guantanamo have been on hunger strikes. The number of detainees has increased over this time, to where the military concedes that at least 100 of the 166 detainees held in Guantanamo are now participating. Detainees have been telling their habeas lawyers that a larger number of men are fasting.
The military also concedes that at least 21 of the men are being strapped into a chair specifically designed for them to be force-fed twice daily. Tubes are pushed up the men's nostrils and down into their stomachs. Ensure, some detainees believe that laxatives are added, is then poured into the tubes. If the men vomit or otherwise dirty themselves, the military will let them sit in it. Five men are currently hospitalized.
The World Medical Association believes that people who go on hunger strikes have the right not to be force-fed without their consent. U.S. officials claim force-feeding saves lives. But what kind of lives is our government saving when the men, who have never been charged with a crime, envision a future where they will never see, much less embrace, their wives, children and parents again?
Two weeks ago, the military moved the detainees from communal living situations into individual cells. The military's intent was to forestall communication among the detainees, in the hope that they would no longer encourage each other to pursue the fast. However, the military's strategy to break the strike is not working. More men are officially on hunger strike today than last week.
International media contacts me frequently about the state of the men's lives in Guantanamo. The BBC called again the other night, as did the Times of London. But rarely does the U.S. media call. Relatively few Americans seem to care about the human rights violations occurring in Guantanamo, so why should our media bother? Without Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald tweeting and writing of the fate of the men, we would be even less informed.
Soon another detainee may die in Guantanamo. Depressing, but true. Nine people have died in Guantanamo since it opened on January 11, 2002. There may be more deaths from men desperate enough to commit suicide rather than live until they die of natural causes in Guantanamo. How many suicides will it take before the government hears the voices of those who have been housed in the detention facilities in Guantanamo for over a decade? We have created an international human rights issue of tragic proportions, and no one with the power to act seems to care. Obama says he cares, but nothing changes.
The world is watching. And as we continue to darken our image as a bastion of human rights, the international community wonders what is wrong with us. How can we be so heartless as to not recognize that we are not only violating international law and norms in detaining men who have never been charged with a crime for over a decade, but we are also perpetuating a human rights disaster? Soon there may be more deaths under the darkening cloud that hangs over Guantanamo.
Peter Jan Honigsberg is professor of law at the University of San Francisco and Director of the Witness to Guantanamo project (witnesstoguantanamo.com). He is also the author of Our Nation Unhinged, the Human Consequences of the War on Terror (University of California Press).