In November 2001, Mohamedou Ould Slahi was detained by Mauritanian police. After being held for a week without trial, he was told that he would be sent to Jordan. Naturally shocked, he asked why. The Mauritanians told him that they were acting under American orders. ‘Why weren’t they protecting his rights?’, he asked. ‘Because the Americans said they will punish us if we don’t turn you over,’ was the reply. So he was sent to Jordan; imprisoned; interrogated; and denied access to the Red Cross. Soon he was transferred again. This time to Bagram, an American base, where he was threatened with torture. And then, of course, he was sent to Guantanamo. He is still there, untried and mistreated.
The answer is that we must be. We must remind ourselves of these crimes and continue to be outraged by this expression of contempt for human rights. We must remember the story of Binyam Mohamed. The judge who presided over his case noted, “Binyam Mohamed’s trauma lasted for two long years. During that time, he was physically and psychologically tortured. His genitals were mutilated. He was deprived of sleep and food … Captors held him in stress positions for days at a time. He was forced to listen to piercingly loud music and the screams of other prisoners while locked in a pitch-black cell.”
And let’s consider the treatment of Mohamed al-Qahtani. He was forced to wear a bra and had a thong placed on his head. He was tied by a leash, led around the room and made to perform dog tricks. He was sexually humiliated, forced to listen to loud music for hours, deprived of sleep, and exposed to extremes of heat and cold. Dogs were used to mock him, “brought into the interrogation room and directed to growl, bark, and show [their] teeth” at the detainee. It’s appropriate that dogs played a role in his torture, stripped of humanity as he was. His dignity is nonexistent.
In 1911, the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on torture proclaimed that “the whole subject is now only of historical interest as far as Europe is concerned”. It is the sort of thing that “was frequently inflicted by the Greek despots”, but is now considered barbaric by all civilised countries. After the first half of the twentieth century this judgement appeared sadly premature. It was to ensure that the horrific war crimes of the Second World War did not happen again that America played a leading role in establishing the codes of international law which safeguard human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. This was taken almost verbatim from the US Constitution, which declares that “cruel and unusual punishments shall not be inflicted.” This same constitution grants the right to a fair trial. It was to circumvent such laws that the Bush administration opened Guantanamo, an off-shore military base where “enemy detainees” could be kept indefinitely. A Bush memo in 2002 declared that detainees were “not legally entitled” to humane care. Detainees are also not entitled to a trial. Dick Cheney elaborated upon America’s interrogations in Guantanamo: “American personnel were not there to commence an elaborate legal proceeding, but to extract information.” “An elaborate legal proceeding”, of course, means the due process of law.
Things have improved under Obama, but not enough. Torture has stopped, but there has been no attempt to mete out justice upon those who inflicted it. Detainees remain stranded in this legal no-man’s land. The administration tried to close the camp, but this goal seems to have been abandoned. The reason for this failure, according to Obama, was the difficult “politics” of the issue, and Attorney General Eric Holder attacked Congress for opposing the move. This seems convincing until we remember that nation states may not claim political controversy as an excuse for systematically violating international law.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration appears indifferent to the human rights disgrace that is Guantanamo. When it does speak out against it, it uses purely pragmatic arguments: ‘The detainee camp helps our enemies and is counter-productive’. Few would dispute that: even Bush has conceded that the camp is “a propaganda tool for our enemies”. But to argue this is to believe that human rights can be suspended, anywhere, anytime, if there is any reason to suspect that it might be useful to do so. Sadly, this view won support in the aftermath of 9/11. Nonetheless, it is morally unacceptable, and Amnesty International is opposed to any attempt to subordinate human rights to political expediency. It is long past time for America to reclaim its Enlightenment legacy and remember Benjamin Franklin’s adage that “those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”. If the American government heeds this advice and shuts down Guantanamo, it will not only improve America’s global image, it will strike a much needed blow for human dignity around the world.