US actions on Guantanamo issue do not respect international laws – experts
23 March 2015. PenzaNews. The US President Barack Obama regrets not closing the prison camp at Guantanamo right after his victory in the 2009 election, he said on Thursday, March 19.
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“I should have closed Guantanamo on day one,” the US President said during a Q&A session after a speech on economics in Cleveland, Ohio.
According to Barack Obama, back then he did not take any quick and decisive steps because he wanted to approach the issues with a more deliberate fashion, taking the changes in political situation and the public opinion into account.
However, the US President admitted that the notorious prison not only violates the American ideals, but is also used by the terrorists worldwide to recruit combatants.
For many years Guantanamo has remained a matter of concern for human rights activists, who demand immediate freedom for all prisoners cleared for release and fair trial for all other people who were detained in Guantanamo with no actual legal reasons to remain there. According to them, Guantanamo prisoners have no means to protect their rights and are constantly exposed to abuse and torture.
Currently, 122 persons remain detained in the notorious prison, including 56 prisoners who are forced to wait for freedom for years at a time despite being cleared for release.
Meanwhile, the US officials obstruct the detailed investigation of the Guantanamo Bay camp situation. According to Juan Mendez, Argentinian human rights activist and UNHRC special rapporteur, America refuses to allow him to visit the prison his own terms because they consider it to be a military camp.
“It were the same conditions that had been offered to my predecessors in 2004. The conditions were that I could get a briefing from the authorities of the Guantanamo prison and that they would let me see some parts of the prison, but not all. But very specifically, I could not have any conversation with any inmate in Guantanamo Bay,” Juan Mendez said in the recorded video statement shown to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights conference session on Guantanamo held on Monday, March 16.
Earlier, in late January 2015, the Guantanamo situation took another development on an international level. During the talks between the US and Cuba on normalization of bilateral relations announced by Barack Obama on December 17, 2014, the Cuban President Raul Castro demanded that the United States return the military base at Guantanamo Bay, seen by Havana as illegally occupied since early 20th century, back to the Cuban people. However, on February 4, Roberta Jacobson, assistant Secretary of State leading the Cuban negotiations, claimed that America is not interested to discuss this issue and that Guantanamo is not on the table in the diplomatic conversations.
According to Wells Dixon, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), it is yet unclear if Cuba continues to insist on the return of its territory, but the Guantanamo military base already has great value for the US.
“It has served, and continues to serve, a broad range of functions in addition to housing the notorious, unlawful prison. Indeed, it is our understanding that Guantanamo is the only permanent U.S. military base in Latin America or the Caribbean, and is used [...] also for drug interdiction, maritime search and rescue operations, and humanitarian relief operations (e.g., in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti),” the expert recalled.
In his opinion, the George Bush administration deliberately chose the Guantanamo military base for the post-9/11 prison camp.
“It was supposed to be a place where the US could detain and interrogate terrorism suspects without the constraints of US and international law, or other scrutiny,” the expert stressed, adding that the lawsuits initiated by his organization led to the downfall of such plans.
Speaking of Barack Obama’s plans to close the prison, the CCR senior attorney suggested that the US President stumbled over the harsh opposition from the Republican party that gained the majority in the US Congress.
“Unwilling to spend the political capital necessary to overcome these obstacles, President Obama essentially turned his back on Guantanamo,” Wells Dixon stated, saying he doubts the President has good chances to close the prison before the end of his term.
Meanwhile, Jaime Suchlicki, Emilio Bacardi Moreau Distinguished Professor of History, author of several books on Cuba, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, expressed his belief that the Guantanamo prison will be closed within the next two years, but this event has no connection to the demands to give away the military base to Havana.
“You should distinguish closing Guantanamo prison from returning the base to Cuba,” the expert said.
In his opinion, Raul Castro’s demand will be ignored by the US administration because Guantanamo holds great strategic value for Washington.
“The US has no interest in closing the base, especially since it cannot rely on Russian or Cuban guarantees that the base may not be used in the future by Russian submarines,” explained the director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.
Discussing the use of Guantanamo prison imagery in the radical Islamist propaganda, the historian noted that the terrorist groups had already been present and recruiting new terrorists long before the prison camp was founded.
“The attack of 9/11 happened way before the prison was opened. Radical Islamists do not need Guantanamo for their propaganda and I doubt that young people join ISIS because of Guantanamo,” he noted.
In his turn, Andy Worthington, British historian, journalist and author of the book “The Guantanamo Files,” pointed out that America, a self-proclaimed “world’s policeman,” currently has many military bases all over the world, at the same time spending enormous funds on defense.
“I am actually surprised that there have not been a political movement within the United States to severely scale down their military budget, and, as a result, get them out of countries that they have no business being in,” the expert said in an interview to PenzaNews agency.
Discussing the Guantanamo issue, the expert suggested that Barack Obama acted slowly right from the beginning, which gave his opponents enough advantage to tip the scales.
“He made a promise to close Guantanamo, and then he did not immediately do anything to follow up on that promise, apart from establishing a high-level intelligence agency ‘Guantanamo Review Task Force,’ consisting of about 60 officials from various government departments and intelligence agencies, to review all the cases of the Guantanamo prisoners and to decide whether they wanted to carry on holding them, whether they wanted to put them on trial, whether they wanted to release them. While there was very little happening on Guantanamo, it gave the Republicans an opportunity to portray President Obama as weak on national security. That then scared some members of his own party, who were thinking about their jobs rather than thinking about the necessity to close Guantanamo,” the speaker explained.
According to him, the Republicans made several steps that led to Obama losing almost all freedom in the Guantanamo issue.
“First of all, they refused to allow him to have the money to purchase the prison on the US mainland so that he could move the prisoners from Guantanamo to the US mainland and close the actual facility at Guantanamo. And then, as the years went on, it basically imposed the restrictions on his ability to release prisoners. Effectively they told him that the Secretary of Defense would have to certify that it was safe to release prisoners,” the historian said, adding that the aforementioned steps resulted in a period from 2010 to 2013 when almost no Guantanamo prisoners were set free.
“That has only changed in 2013, when the prisoners went on prison-wide hunger strike, because they were so in despair about either being released, if they had been approved to release, or being given any form of justice. They went on a huge hunger strike, and suddenly the world started paying attention, and suddenly President Obama started being criticized, so he then promised to resume releasing prisoners,” Andy Worthington recalled.
Currently, he noted, over 50 Guantanamo prisoners still remain detained in spite of being cleared for release, and most of them are the citizens of Yemen.
“The problem for the US establishment across the board has been an extreme reluctance to release anyone to Yemen, because they regard the security situation there as too dangerous. So for years these Yemenis have sat in Guantanamo, being told the US did not want to hold them, but also being told they were not going to be sent home. And it was only in recent months that the administration has begun finding new homes for Yemeni prisoners,” Andy Worthington explained.
He also added that people from other countries, such as the Saudi Arabia emigrant and the British citizen Shaker Aamer, still remain in this year-long limbo.
According to him, the current situation in Guantanamo is morally, legally and ethically unacceptable.
“In terms of human rights, it is an absolute disgrace. It should never have existed in a country that claims to respect the rule of law [...] If you are going to deprive someone of their liberty, you either charge them with a criminal sense and put them on trial, or you hold them as prisoners of law according to the Geneva Convention. All the people at Guantanamo have not been treated like that,” the expert said.
No detainee knows exactly when he will be able to leave the prison, he said, calling such treatment “a form of mental torture.”
“They were called ‘enemy combatants’ by the Bush administration who invented a new category of human beings who had no rights [...] They will stay there and die there unless political solutions are found,” Andy Worthington stressed.
According to Rob Freer, Amnesty International researcher on the USA, the standoff over the prison camp is caused by several reasons.
“The US administration has failed to end the detentions at Guantanamo primarily because it has failed to address the detentions as a human rights issue (which requires fair trial or release), and has instead viewed them as part of a global ‘war’ in which it deems that it is allowed to hold people indefinitely,’ he said.
In the expert’s opinion, the Guantanamo issue is became a game of political football for the internal US policy.
At the same time, Rob Freer stressed that the existence of such a prison undermines the credibility of America as the self-proclaimed global human rights champion.
“All branches of government – the executive, the legislature, and the courts – are required to ensure that the country meets its international human rights obligations. The continuing indefinite detentions at Guantanamo are incompatible with this requirement,” said the Amnesty International researcher.
This issue, according to Jonathan Hansen, historian, lecturer on Social Studies and faculty associate at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at the Harvard University, the US control over the Guantanamo military base also raises great doubts.
“I think morally Cuba has justice on its side, because [Guantanamo] is after all an imperial enclave and hails from the time of US imperialism and influence in Cuba at the turn of the 20th century,” the expert reminded.
In his opinion, the US President focuses his priority on closing the military camp first, while a decision to return the military base will be a major political earthquake on the American arena.
“The Republican party, already astounded, would be just flabbergasted if Obama right now began talking about returning the base itself. My guess is John Kerry, president Obama and many of the people in his administration think that ultimately it is a good idea, but I just don’t think they have the political capital at the moment to consider that,” said David Rockefeller Center associate.
He also suggested that the US President is currently trying to undermine the Republicans indirectly, such as by pointing out the poor financial standing of the prison camp.
“It is already a phenomenally expensive prison per person: $2.8 million per year compared to $78 thousand per prisoner in the United States prisons. The more people [Barack Obama] releases, the more that number goes up. He seems to be saying to the Republicans: ‘Are you serious? You seem to be challenging prison advocates to justify the extravagance of that per-person cost’,” the expert explained.
Again discussing the Cuban military base issue, Jonathan Hansen said the exchange between the US and Cuba is nothing more than a rhetoric, while nobody can predict the actual outcome of the events.
“You could imagine that the US could give it back and still retain a footprint there. You could imagine that Cuba and the US could set up a regional immigration facility, a refugee facility, a hospital – people have all sorts of different ideas,” the researcher said.
He also added that the military base found many uses under over a century of American control.
“The thing that a historian like me is interested in is that Guantanamo has proved useful to the United States in unexpected ways over the centuries: it was originally a coaling station, and then it became useful to train the US fleet, then became useful as a detention center, then became useful as a refugee center, and now this is a prison for the global war on terror. So it has a number of uses that had been utterly unanticipated by historians,” the expert explained.
Meanwhile, Medea Benjamin, human rights activist, co-founder of “Codepink” women’s anti-military human rights organization and author of several books on rights issues, expressed her belief the base will sooner or later be returned to Cuba.
“It’s inevitable that it happens; it’s a question of when. I don’t think that the US can go on claiming that it owns a significant, and very important financially, piece of real estate in Cuba forever. I don’t think this is something that will happen quickly – it might take as long as another 10 years, – but I do think that eventually US leaders will recognize that it’s untenable to continue to control the Guantanamo base,” she explained, calling the current stance of Washington in this issue “the hubris of empire.”
“This is just incredible arrogance on the part of the US-elected officials: the US’ possession of Guantanamo base should be deemed illegal by any credible international law. [...] I think that if this ever came up in an international court of law, the ruling would be on the favor of Cuba, since the Castro regime came to power in 1959, they have never cashed the check that the US government has sent for a rent for the island, and they have consistently said that Guantanamo belongs to the Cuban people,” the expert stressed.
From her point of view, the release process is painfully slow, because of Barack Obama’s strategy mishap several years ago, and now the situation will be difficult to change because of American public opinion.
“The public perception is still what we were told years ago by Vice-President Dick Cheney under George Bush: that these are ‘the worst of the worst.’ So the image in the American public is that anybody who is in Guantanamo is there because they are extremely dangerous people who want to cause harm to Americans, so releasing them or closing the prison does not score well politically,” Medea Benjamin said.
“Let’s face it: there is not a lot of Americans who will vote for a politician because they stood up for prisoners’ rights. Most politicians think that they will please their constituents if they show that they are tough on criminals and terrorists and people who supposedly have violated US laws,” the Codepink founder stated.
In her opinion, presently the US is the only country that still has a large number of military bases abroad.
“It is a relic of the Cold War with Russia and a relic of the WWII,” the expert stressed.
She added that the international community must actively push for Washington to close its far military bases and let many countries regain sovereignty over plots of their land they are currently not controlling.
“I think we just have to mount greater pressure, not just from the United States, but internationally, to shame the US government into returning Guantanamo,” Medea Benjamin continued.
She also urged the US authorities to conduct quick and just review of cases for all 122 detainees that still remain in the notorious prison.
“The people who have been cleared for release should be released immediately, and the people who have not been cleared for release should be tried immediately in the US federal courts, not in the military tribunal,” Medea Benjamin concluded.