Human Rights on hold

Obama’s inauguration was supposed to mark a new era in American human rights policy. Guantanamo Bay – a continuing stain on their record – was to be shut down. Horrors such as water-boarding were to be ended. Gone would be the harrowing days of ‘torture flights’. But how much has been achieved? Are the promises being kept? I caught up with Sara MacNeice, Amnesty International UK’s Campaign Manager on Terrorism, Security and Human Rights to find out.

She explains that the swearing in of the new president gave Amnesty a real sense of optimism and hope that things would improve. ‘In January of last year, President Obama issued orders to close the base. He anticipated the closure within a year. Amnesty has been working for the closure of Guantanamo Bay basically since Guantanamo Bay existed, so this was a huge victory for us, in the sense that the president obviously had a firm desire to close the base. That was good news, along with that came other executive orders that looked to ending the practice of secret detention and closing down CIA run secret detention facilities and other measures that were very, very much pro human rights.’

I ask what we know about these facilities. Naively expecting such centres to be secluded within the vast American landscape, I am shocked to discover their global spread. ‘They’re in varying places, countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan. There have been rumoured – but it’s not absolutely confirmed – to be secret detention facilities in Poland, parts of eastern Europe, possibly, and also places like Diego Garcia which is under British control. But we don’t have a very clear picture of the secret detention network.

‘Alongside that went the practice of extraordinary rendition which allowed individuals to be transferred from one place to another without any judicial procedure where they would end up very often in these secret detention places.’

It is alarming that British territory could be used for such practices. Last year, David Miliband apologised, admitting that previous denials had been incorrect and that Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, had been used by the U.S. for refuelling extraordinary rendition flights. Yet he further affirmed U.S. assurances that no US detainees were ever held on the island. However, later on in the year, Time magazine claimed a ‘former senior American official’ had told them that the U.S., in 2002, had ‘imprisoned and interrogated one or more terrorism suspects on Diego Garcia’.

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Whatever the past though, at the beginning of 2009, Amnesty could at least take solace that things were going to improve. But has it panned out this way? Not in Amnesty’s book.

‘Obama was putting forward what we termed as “mixed messages”‘

‘Whilst it all looked very, very positive in January, Amnesty then reviewed Obama’s progress over the first 100 days of his presidency and we came to the conclusion that he was putting forward what we termed as “mixed messages”.

‘A good example of that is, whilst he said we close the CIA run secret detention network, he did not say he would end the practice of extraordinary rendition which leaves open the possibility of individuals being transferred from places like Guantanamo to other prisons, which are just not prisons run by the U.S..’

As well as renditions continuing, Guantanamo’s closure is wracked with difficulty:
‘In terms of Guantanamo, it is likely we will be disappointed in the promise to have it closed by January. If not, and if Guantanamo is closed by then, what we need to see is it closed properly within clear human rights-based parameters. That means that the individuals who remain in the base (numbering 200-220) need to be charged or released. They need to be charged and tried in a proper federal legal system or they need to be released.’

It looks like 80 shall be transferred to countries where asylum has been found. Amnesty hopes that for those who have been detained for so long without trial, redress will be found and abuses investigated.

For the ones who are to be charged, as many as 60, Amnesty strongly opposes trial by ‘military commission’. They argue that these bodies are illegal and unjust, with defendants lacking good quality legal representation (they have usually been offered only military lawyers), translation facilities, and access to the evidence against them before the hearing. On top of their extended incarceration, this has meant that the detainees cannot mount a proper defence. Congress recently enacted measures to add safeguards to the commissions.

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Over the weekend, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced five detainees are to be tried by these modified military commissions and five more – including alleged 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed – in a civilian court in New York. Whilst this falls in line with Amnesty’s demands insofar as this is within normal legal parameters, I have suspicions that – just blocks away from Ground Zero – the intense desire not to let the real perpetrators escape justice means that anyone facing trial on terrorist charges faces a foregone conclusion.

So what role can students play in fighting against injustices in the war on terror? MacNeice sets out Amnesty’s appreciation of student activism: ‘The student body is one of our most powerful activist bases…We’ve had positive experiences with student activists who are ready and able to mobilize within hours.

‘Our job as an organization is to get the facts out there and make people aware how severe the violations of human rights are but also to look at the end game: to get the message out there that it will achieve very, very little to approach the issue of counter-terrorism in the way that many governments are persisting to approach it. Security and human rights are not two distinct issues, but they go hand in hand.’

In the war on terror, previous progress in human rights has been rolled back as is evident by such techniques such as water boarding which for many are tantamount to torture. Amnesty wants to arm the student body with arguments they need to counteract this regression, bringing about changes in popular opinion and government policy. Neglecting human rights only contributes to the problem of terrorism; only if we respect them again can we find a solution.

Students are invited to attend an event on human rights and the war on terror on November 26th, in London. See amnesty.org.uk for details.