President Joe Biden’s avowed intention to close the Guantánamo prison offers hope to end an embarrassing episode in the most recent history of the United States. The abuses committed at Guantánamo have been criticized by many countries around the globe and condemned by all leading human rights organizations.
The Constitution Project, a Washington-based non-partisan research and advocacy group, stated that “U.S. forces, in many instances, used interrogation techniques on detainees that constitute torture. American personnel conducted an even larger number of interrogations that involved ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. Both categories of actions violate U.S. laws and international treaties. Such conduct was directly counter to values of the Constitution and our nation.”
Equally appalling has been the involvement of medical personnel who supervised the interrogation of detainees, as denounced by Open Society and the Institute of Medicine as a Profession (IMAP) to the point that the US Department of Defense (DOD) considered those health professionals “safety officers’ rather than doctors. In its report “Deprivation and Despair: The Crisis of Medical Care at Guantánamo,” Physicians for Human Rights (USA) gives a detailed account of the abuses that detainees were subjected to in Guantánamo.
One argument for denying constitutional protections to Guantánamo prisoners rests on the allegation that Guantánamo is in Cuba, off American soil. Respect for basic human dignity, however, is not limited by nationality or territory. And if the Bill of Rights enshrined in the US Constitution were not enough, international human rights law (customary and treaty-based,) extends such protection to Guantánamo detainees. Although the most glaring abuse of prisoners in Guantánamo has reportedly ceased, keeping this facility open perpetuates a situation of injustice, should serious ethical concerns not suffice.
There are some obvious practical hindrances to closing Guantánamo, including the need to ensure that some prisoners will no longer pose a threat and to relocate those that do, a challenge aggravated by the coronavirus pandemic. A starting point to address these questions is to re-establish the State Department post of Guantánamo closure envoy. The post was created by former president Barak Obama but eliminated by former president Donald Trump. The Pentagon should restart a thorough review of the remaining prisoners’ cases to determine who among them continue to pose a security threat and expedite those cases that don’t.
One of the toughest foreign policy challenges for the Biden administration is to continue its war on terrorism while continuing to adhere to international human rights standards. In its report entitled “USA: Right the Wrong” Amnesty International says, “After a period in which many pressing social, environmental and justice issues have been set back, the Biden administration’s plate will undoubtedly be full. But not as full as to be unable to prioritize and resource closure of the Guantánamo detention facility, to immediately begin to work for a lawful resolution of every single case, and to commit to a new and full respect by the USA for international human rights law. In the end, this is about even more than the 40 people still held at Guantánamo. It is not only about the detentions today, but also about crimes under international law of yesterday and the continuing lack of accountability and remedy for them. It is about the future too, of moving towards the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and beyond with the USA striving for real and enduring justice and with a commitment to being a genuine supporter of human rights.”
The conditions in which prisoners have been held at Guantánamo have been an indelible stain in the US reputation throughout the world. Closing this infamous facility would signal a welcome change in US national and international politics. The time to close Guantánamo is long overdue.