September 6, 2011

Ten Years and No Progress on Guantánamo

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Nearly 10 years ago, a detention center opened at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba, transforming a little-known U.S. stronghold into one of the most infamous prisons in the world.   The center was opened by President George W. Bush and became a champion campaign point for President Barack Obama, who promised to close it. Gitmo, however, is embarrassingly and unfortunately still alive and kicking — hard, and mostly right in the stomach of the “enemy combatants” detained there.The Justice Department initially advised that the base could be considered outside American legal jurisdiction, freeing the Department of Defense from a variety of legal obligations and behavior standards. Early detainees at “Gitmo” were forced to live in exposed metal cages and subjected to consistent abuse. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that prisoners were at least entitled to minimal protections under the Geneva Convention, and the DOD changed their policies. The Supreme Court deserves to be commended for at least this small step; the Geneva Convention is only worth as much as people believe in it, and without strong leadership and adherence to those policies, the United States can hardly expect the same treatment for its own soldiers imprisoned abroad.Prisoners at Guantánamo are often left in a sort of legal twilight zone with regards to trial and release. Without rights guaranteed to all inmates, the writ of habeas corpus and subsequently the right to fair trial and treatment are frequently endangered. After the outside world observed a high rate of suicide attempts among early Guantánamo detainees, the Pentagon started referring to said deaths as “act[s] of asymmetric warfare waged against us” and thwarting lawyers for frustrated detainees driven to suicide attempts.As a response to the Bush Administration’s prejudiced and ineffective handling of the center, President Obama campaigned on the promise to close Guantánamo. This was a first step towards repairing and correcting the abuses committed within its walls and finally sorting out those who had committed crimes from those who hadn’t. Nearly three years ago, as President-elect, he and his early advisers began crafting a plan for closure. The detainees would essentially be divided into three groups: one to be released as soon as possible, with the American government taking responsibility for repatriation; another to be prosecuted in normal U.S. courts; and the third group would fall under the jurisdiction of a new court geared towards handling classified situations, completely abolishing the Bush administration’s practice of using military tribunals.  Once in office, Obama ensured that copies of his executive orders to close the center were posted within the detention center’s walls. The closure, however, never took place.Today 171 inmates remain at Guantánamo Bay. Only six detainees have ever actually been convicted of crimes, while the majority languish in a political no man’s land. Obama’s goals for one of the three groups have come to fruition: some detainees have been repatriated to other countries in an effort to ease the situation out of the unfortunate plateau it has hit. Repatriation, however, is simply a quick effort by the U.S. government to smooth over egregious human rights offenses. If detainees are released to nations with few cultural ties to their home countries, however, have they really been paid back for their time served? For example, several Uighers, a Chinese Muslim minority, have been repatriated to Albania, Palau and parts of Latin America. Once those individuals are repatriated, they cannot come back and sue the United States government. They cannot see their families, nor return to their communities — where they would be held in suspicion due to long-term imprisonment in United States territories. Chinese authorities would likely persecute them, accuse them of spying or otherwise mistreat them as a result of their extended U.S. detentions. Justice has not been served; repatriation only serves to clean the consciences of U.S. officials.Allowing inmates to repatriate to the United States would scare our citizens: There is an obvious stigma to detention in Guantánamo, even if it was baseless or brief. Many detainees only ever ended up at the detention center because of misinformed gossip or bounties offered in their home villages by American soldiers. Despite this, it would be nearly impossible for these individuals to comfortably assimilate into U.S. communities because of the political baggage they carry. Still, innocent detainees deserve more than a passport to a strange country and a one-way plane ticket to get them there.It is not reasonable nor economically practical to view detainees at Guantánamo as guilty until proven innocent.; while they stay confined in substandard conditions with no court date set, we pay an enormous financial and public relations cost to our “world police” image and our military’s mores. But we should be working to empty those metal cages and putrid hallways of detainees, even if we are suspicious and even if we believe them to be anti-American terrorists. A failure to give detainees their day in legitimate courts just shows us as scared, ignorant and ourselves unworthy of the human rights that we claim to champion worldwide.10 years after Sept. 11, we should be a proud and living testament to the differences between non-state, terror-inducing organizations like al Qaeda and countries like our own. But where is the new court system? Where is the sweep of repatriations?  We have set laws and protections within those laws. Withholding these rights from a couple hundred “enemy combatants” at Guantánamo does little to protect our citizenry. It does even less to respect the memory of those who lost their lives on Sept. 11 if we turn around and violate human rights as the hijackers did. If we right this wrong, and legitimize a just method for processing detainees, then we set ourselves apart from the organizations we proclaim to combat and the extralegal twilight zone they inhabit.  If we don’t, then we’ve created a new terrorism — one that can’t be quelled.

Maggie Henry is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at mhenry@cornellsun.com. Get Over Yourself appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Maggie Henry