NEW YORK - The U.S. government’s recent decision to send 15 Guantanamo Bay detainees to the United Arab Emirates is the largest and most recent detainee transfer under President Barack Obama. The transfer, however, doesn’t hide the fact that Guantanamo (“Gitmo”) remains a stain on the reputation of the United States.
Gitmo was opened in January 2002, under the administration of President George W. Bush, for the purpose of locking up foreign terror suspects after the 9/11 attacks and subsequent U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. Some 779 men have been brought there since it opened. Nine prisoners have died at the facility. While most of them were released by Bush, 161 were released during Obama’s administration. Only 61 prisoners remain in Guantanamo, of which only seven are facing criminal charges.
Both Republicans and some Democrats claim that Guantanamo prisoners are too dangerous to keep on U.S. soil and reject the idea of bringing them to the U.S. for trial. Keeping an individual locked up for years under administrative detention is in itself a judicial travesty, however, and maintaining such indefinite deprivation of liberty without bringing criminal charges is a gross human rights violation.
Confirming what impartial observers stated in the past, Obama acknowledged last February that “not a single verdict has been reached” on any of Gitmo’s prisoners, adding that “Guantanamo undermines our standing in the world.” Not only Obama but many military leaders and national security experts agree that the facility harms national security and should be closed. Thirty-two of the most respected retired generals and admirals asked Obama to submit a plan to Congress detailing actions the administration will take to close Guantanamo.
Obama’s plans to close Guantanamo suffered a setback when, on Nov. 25, Congress passed a defense authorization bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), reinforcing a ban on the use of torture, another historical stain on U.S. foreign policy also tied to Gitmo’s infamous story. Although widely praised by its stand on torture, the NDAA contains provisions that make it practically impossible for Obama to close Guantanamo.
Following the enactment of the NDAA, Obama said, “I am, however, deeply disappointed that the Congress has again failed to take productive action toward closing the detention facility at Guantanamo. Maintaining this site, year after year, is not consistent with our interests as a nation and undermines our standing in the world.
“As I have said before, the continued operation of this facility weakens our national security by draining resources, damaging our relationships with key allies and partners, and emboldening violent extremists. It is imperative that we take responsible steps to reduce the population at this facility to the greatest extent possible and close the facility. … It is long past time for the Congress to lift the restrictions it has imposed and to work with my administration to responsibly and safely close the facility, bringing this chapter of our history to a close.”
Obama’s decision to close Guantanamo has found strong Republican opposition. Republicans have criticized the last wave of releases and want to keep that facility open and imprison there fighters from the Islamic State. Donald Trump, with his characteristic insouciance said that, if he were elected, he would fill Guantanamo with “bad dudes” and “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” This is not the wisest course of action.
Obama’s plan to close Guantanamo is based on speeding up the work of the Periodic Review Boards, created by executive order on March 7, 2011. As stated by Human Rights First, an independent advocacy and action organization: “The Periodic Review Boards are meant ‘to determine whether certain individuals detained at [Guantanamo] represent a continuing significant threat to the security of the United States such that their continued detention is warranted.’ “
Insisting on maintaining a facility that has only brought shame and embarrassment to the U.S. is wrong. There are presently about 35 countries willing to accept a Guantanamo detainee, where the remaining 61 detainees could be transferred. There are too few inmates to justify maintaining Gitmo. Pardiss Kebriaei, a lawyer for the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, has said that the human spirit of many Guantanamo detainees has been broken, the saddest commentary on that tragic place.
Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards in Argentina.