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Guantanamo transfers: an empty gesture?

The transfer of 70 detainees to Illinois simply passes on the problem

So, what are we to make of the Obama administration's decision to transfer about 70 of the remaining 250 or so Guantanamo detainees to the US mainland?

The White House yesterday released a memorandum directing the federal government to purchase the prison, in order to "facilitate the closure" of detention facilities at the Guantanamo Bay naval base by securing the transfer of roughly 70 inmates (according to Senator Dick Durbin, D-Illinois) to the correctional centre in the town of Thomson, Carroll County, Illinois.

The decision to move the detainees to the facility at Thomson (population 559) is an interesting choice, on all sorts of levels.

In part, Barack Obama is doubtless being a touch wily and seeking to stall the barrage of criticism he will be in for, come 22 January and the passing of the year in which he said that he would have Guantanamo closed. It will also provide a good number of jobs -- some sources say up to 2,000 -- and $1bn of federal funding in an area feeling the economic downturn acutely.

But he will take considerable flak from the Republicans, some of whom are already talking of the "risks" the move poses to the American public. In an expensive pre-emptive pandering to such cynically stoked fears, the prison -- which already features cells built of precast, reinforced cement, will now be retrofitted to exceed even "super-max" security standards, according to a letter sent to the governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But this is hardly going to quell Republican concerns that Guantanamo detainees just shouldn't be in America, period.

A more serious question the Republicans might have addressed is whether the move will defuse Guantanamo as the terrorist recruiting station it has come to be viewed as around the world. The answer here is, of course, no. The question was never about the "where" of Guantanamo itself; it was always about the "how" of detainee treatment and the United States' commitment to international law. And unless steps are taken to expedite detainees' passage through open and transparent legal processes, nothing about the world's indignation against it will change.

Indeed, the use of the term "detainee management purposes" in Obama's order yesterday was chillingly reminiscent of the neoliberalist jargon deployed to such horrid effect during the Bush era. Moreover, as at the "old" Guantanamo, the "new" Guantanamo will be run not by the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but by the defence department, yet another way that these detainees are cleaved from the legal system.

But amid all the brouhaha about the decision, there are three important things to remember.

First, this is a response to the real difficulty the White House has encountered in finding other places to take the detainees. For all the love-in surrounding Obama's trip to Norway last week, for example, even the Norwegian foreign minister Jonas Gahr Støre has declined to take them, and in no uncertain terms. "Guantanamo is the United States' responsibility," he said last month.

Second, it takes some of the heat (and we ought not to be distracted by this) away from the fact that the move does nothing to resolve the fate of the detainees among this number who will continue to be held indefinitely. Nor does it deal with the question of the treatment of detainees slated for transfer elsewhere -- those whose transfer to Yemen is actively being discussed in particular.

Third, it reminds us that the real problems of Guantanamo still have not been addressed by the present administration. Obama was very good on the symbolism of closing the base at the beginning of this year. He has been less good at addressing the broader legal quagmire of Guantanamo (including the policy of rendition). Moving those who are to be tried by refangled military commission (which the Obama administration could have dropped, but has chosen to continue with) does not address that problem; it simply passes it on.

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