Guantánamo comes home

Instead of closing Guantánamo, Obama has brought its shameful disregard for human rights on to the h

Instead of closing Guantánamo, Obama has brought its shameful disregard for human rights on to the home turf.

It was cold but that didn't matter. Strings of coloured lights still dangled between lamp posts and for progressives across the world, Christmas was far from over. On 22 January 2009, just two days after taking office, Barack Obama issued an executive order that committed the White House to closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility within a year. "We are going to win this fight. We are going to win it on our terms," he said, and many of us believed him. The US president seemed once and for all to be ushering in a new morning for America, which, unlike Ronald Reagan's false dawn 25 years earlier, would see the country truly becoming "prouder, stronger [and] better". Sam Stein of the Huffington Post predicted that the "blotch on America's image abroad" would soon be wiped clean. Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said: "With the stroke of a pen, President Obama will make great progress toward restoring America's moral authority." How wrong they were.

I cite Reagan because he, more than any other US president, seemed to lay the groundwork for the nightmare of the George W Bush years. Reagan gave the international community - if such a community can be said to exist - a taste of what was to come in 1983, when he sent troops to the Caribbean island of Grenada following a coup. He called Grenada a "Soviet-Cuban beachhead" and justified the invasion of the tiny country (with a population of about 100,000) by invoking the major paranoia of those years: the red threat. When the United Nations condemned Reagan's "intervention" as "a flagrant violation of international law", he was unmoved. The president responded to the criticism with a tasteless quip: "It didn't upset my breakfast at all." The UN tried to pass a motion deploring the invasion but the US simply vetoed it. In 2002, Bush would cement this arrogant, dismissive attitude to international consensus and law with his national security strategy.

By moving to scrap Guantánamo Bay so soon after coming to power, Obama reassured his supporters, both within and outside America, that a dark chapter of US history was coming to an end. It was a powerful symbolic gesture that suggested that the rule of international law would be heeded once more by the White House. As the second anniversary of the Cuban camp's "final closure" date nears, however, some 170 prisoners remain imprisoned there. Eight inmates have died at Guantánamo since 2002. Two years ago, Dick Cheney claimed that the detainees were the "worst of the worst" and that the "only other option" to their unlawful incarceration was "to kill them" - yet, of the 770 held, more than 550 have been freed without charge. What's worse, over half of those still languishing in the camp's degrading conditions have already been cleared for release.

As we know now, Obama was and evidently is no cure for the US's addiction to rough "justice". I am convinced that his intentions remain noble; yet an administration must be judged not by its hopes alone (no matter how audacious) but by its actions and by what happens under its watch. In May, when Osama Bin Laden was executed by a team of commandos who had no intention of acting within internationally agreed legal protocols (even their presence in Pakistan was a violation of the country's sovereign territory), Obama confirmed that little has changed when it comes to American foreign policy. His vastly increased use of drone attacks, meanwhile, has led to the deaths of twice as many suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban members as Bush imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.

On Thursday, the Senate passed the National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA), which, in effect, formalises the right of the military to arrest and indefinitely detain alleged terrorist operatives without trial, including US citizens. Obama was against the bill and the White House was expected to veto it; but, after what the lawyer Wendy Kaminer in the Atlantic called "cosmetic efforts to obscure the bill's threat to American[s]", the president signed it off.

The ambiguities of the NDAA's phrasing, as well as the broadness of what constitutes a suspected terrorist, has raised alarm on both sides of the political spectrum - Tea Partiers such as Rand Paul have bemoaned its passage in terms not dissimilar from those of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. "The rights we lose now may never be restored," said Rand. "We could see American citizens being sent to Guantánamo Bay." Tom Parker, policy director of counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International USA, said on 15 December: "The NDAA provides a framework for 'normalising' indefinite detention and making Guantánamo a permanent feature of American life."

So much for the promise of 2009. Bush gleefully fashioned the US as a rogue state, publicly celebrating its illegal wars in a way that would probably have made even Reagan blush. Obama, for all his evident unease at the country's continued moral decline, has become the first president since the McCarthy era to pass indefinite detention legislation. Instead of closing Guantánamo, he has brought its shameful disregard for human rights on to the home turf.

Photograph: Getty Images

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.