Guantánamo's imperial past on its 10-year anniversary

After a decade, this detention centre remains on the wrong side of the law.

For the 11 men who were among the first to arrive at Guantánamo, a full decade has now passed in captivity. This is longer than any wartime prisoners have been held in US history and the anniversary has rightly prompted a good deal of speculation as to when and how they might be released.

While some progress has been made under Barack Obama, there have been at least as many setbacks -- and in some cases new and further human rights violations. According to Human Rights Watch, when Obama took office in 2009 there were 242 men still languishing there. Of the 171 prisoners who remain, there are now plans to prosecute just 32, to detain a further 46 indefinitely without charge or trial, and to relocate just 89. That leaves the remaining five who are accused of planning the September 11 attacks, plus one other against whom charges are pending. As the American lawyer Mark Denbeaux said when I heard him speak just before Christmas: "This is no longer a case of detention without trial, it is a case of detention despite trial"; despite trial and acquittal, that is.

Clearly the fate of these men is to be set before all other considerations. But today's anniversary also raises the greater historical problem of Guantánamo: namely, that it may no longer be the exception but the norm.

There are two aspects to this. The first concerns what Guantánamo has established as acceptable over the past ten years. A full history of the US's ongoing construction of a legal carapace about the camp remains to be written. But when it is, we will see much more clearly how what was initially intended to be a delimited enclave of lawlessness has since -- and not without some irony -- drained its poison back into the US political and judicial system itself.

Initially, as with the US Courts' refusal to entertain the first habeas corpus challenges coming from Guantánamo, there were attempts to staunch the flow: to keep the problems of Guantánamo largely offshore. More recently the US government has dreamt up a whole alternative legal system centred upon the much-maligned military tribunals, as both George W. Bush and Obama alike sought to contain the first of the leaks that sprang from Guantánamo's legal quagmire. Yet their attempts have consistently failed, precisely because in the effort to keep pinching its nose of the problem, the US legal system has itself increasingly disregarded the law.

The Court of Appeals for the District of Colombia, for example, has ruled in many cases that detainees should be released. But it has never actually ordered that they be so, preferring to leave their fate to the pardoning flourish of Obama's own pen. Yet he, in turn, finds that his hands are tied by the madnesses of his own cockatoo Congress who demand that any recipient nation taking in detainees from Guantánamo must provide such vouchsafes for the detainees' future behaviour as are impossible in any rational world to expect. This is why the dozens of Yemenis cleared for release to Yemen have not yet actually been allowed to return.

But Obama cannot merely point to Congress and hope to wash his hands of it. With the passing of the National Defense Authorisation Bill at the end of last year, he has himself further codified the practice of detention without trial. Thus has Guantánamo's cancer of justice worked its way back to the very top, as Obama comes to rely ever more heavily on Bush era legislation, like the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), to defend his own tarnished record. Yes, he scrubbed the phrase "enemy combatant" from the rulebook, but then he went and replaced it with the yet more Orwellian "unprivileged enemy belligerent".

Unprivileged they most certainly are. But trying to understand why requires another sort of historical reflection too -- one that takes into account not just the past ten but the past one hundred and ten years since Guantanamo, first established by the Americans on Cuban land that they awarded to themselves, came into being. As the historian Jana Lipmann has pointed out, calls to close Guantánamo almost never refer to the base, only to the camp. Yet the camp itself is only possible because of its location in this rump of an imperial enclave.

This is partly what Bush's lawyers argued too, of course, when trying to justify why US laws (like the right to a trial) should not apply to Guantánamo. But there are other ways in which the place of Guantánamo itself matters to what is still being done there today. And one of the least well-recognised of these is the latitude that it gives to imperial (viz. dehumanizing) ways of thinking.

As scholars like Amy Kaplan have pointed out, Guantánamo's imperial past is constantly reactivated in what the geographer Derek Gregory would term its "colonial present". The bestialisation of its inmates is one example: from the moment they arrive in goggles and boiler suits -- "like giant orange flies", it has been said -- to their subsequent confrontations with the camp dogs. And this favoured imperial trope is present in their legal treatment too: "I think Guantánamo, everyone agrees, is an animal," said Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg back in 2004, when she and her colleagues were trying to come to a ruling on the place.

On the day of Guantánamo's 10-year anniversary as an illegal detention centre, a more coolly arrived at ruling is needed now more than ever before. America needs to recognise this and to get on the right side of history in the process. Congress in particular needs to recognise that its principal reason for not letting people out is the same argument that was used against the abolition of slavery. It needs to recognise -- as do the American judiciary and the executive, and indeed those European nations complicit in extraordinary rendition, who have promised to take in detainees only to throw up all number of practical obstacles since -- the simple truth in what I recently heard one of the Guantanamo lawyers point out: in the long run, "The only way to close Guantánamo down is by first of all opening it up."

Simon Reid-Henry is a lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London

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We need to destroy Isil, yes. But the Prime Minister has no plan

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against bombing Syria, says Owen Smith.

There are no decisions we make as MPs more important than whether we commit our country to combat, with its inevitable loss of military and civilian lives. That is a view shared by MPs of all parties in the House of Commons, who treat their responsibility on this question with the utmost seriousness. I have no doubt, therefore, that the Prime Minister and all those who have concluded that we should enter more fully into combat in Syria, starting with bombing the Isil/Daesh stronghold Raqqua, have done so after careful consideration, believing that this action is necessary to protect the security of the UK, through defeating Isil and bringing stability to Syria.

However, I respectfully disagree with them, and I will not be supporting a motion to bomb, based on the arguments brought forward by the Prime Minister last week.

My opposition is not rooted in pacifism, it is a hard headed and finely balanced judgment based on what I think the likely strategic, security and military effects of our involvement are.

The Prime Minister is right to set out objectives to defeat Isil and the formation of a stable, inclusive government in Syria.  These are aims that we all should share and at some point the use of British military force may well be required to achieve that outcome.  I might well support military action if a comprehensive and serious plan were put to parliament by the Prime Minister.  However, the case that Cameron currently proposes singularly fails to explain to the country how bombing will achieve his twin objectives. In fact, he is equally hazy on both the end state he desires and the end game to deliver it, and even on the question of military action, it is the Opposition's job to point to holes in the government’s argument.

Though I, like most MPs, am no military expert, I have studied these issues with great care and, along with many military and diplomatic experts, I cannot see that that Britain adding around an extra 10 per cent per cent bombing capacity (we will contribute six to 10 planes) to the US, French and other forces’ capabilities is likely to make a truly telling contribution to what we can all agree should be an agreed military objective: degrading and defeating Isil.  Especially given that there have already been around 3,000 air strikes against Isil in Syria.

I am sceptical that our weaponry is significantly more effective than that of the US, however excellent our personnel. I am also sceptical that bombing can avoid civilian casualties. And am wholly unconvinced that bombing, without significant, committed, united and effective ground troops to hold and build on the territory cleared by the bombs, will deliver the objective. It may not even be enough to chase Isil out of their stronghold in Raqqa. If the Prime Minister had been able to build a coalition of support from neighbouring countries of Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and others, willing to commit troops on the ground to take and hold ground cleared by air strikes then the equation would be very different. However, the current coalition is incomplete, and the ground troops insufficient.

Cameron has talked of there being perhaps 70,000 men under arms in opposition to Isil and ready to engage on the ground, but this does seem to me, as to many others, to be an optimistic assessment. Evidently, some of the anti-Isil and anti-Assad forces can be effective, as the Kurdish militias (the YPG) showed in driving back Isil forces from the northern town of Kobani last year, under cover of US planes. But these successful moments of defence have been few and far between and have mostly either involved these Northern (Rojava) Kurdish fighters or their ethnic countrymen from Iraq, the US-trained Peshmerga. Neither group is in close proximity to Raqqa and both see their primary objective as securing a Kurdish homeland from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Other groups, some suggest as many as a hundred, are fighting across the region, but have a wide variety of allegiances and aims, tribal and religious, including two powerful groups that are off-shoots of Al-Quaida.  So it seems clear that the Prime Minister’s current proposals offer no realistic prospect of ground forces securing territory in and around Raqqa, which will ultimately be necessary to effectively neutralise the Isil threat, both regionally and internationally.

Nor is it clear to me what Cameron hopes Bashar al Assad will do in the event of increased bombing of Isil.  Assad is currently fighting on several fronts, against Isil, against the Kurds and against other groupings, some of them the ‘moderates’ the PM hopes will help. It remains uncertain as to whether Assad will view the bombing as an opportunity to intensify his fight with Isil, or to crush the moderates whose main goal is to depose him.

Perhaps more important a reason to oppose this action than the apparent holes in the military strategy, is the lack of a plan for what comes after. The current situation on the ground, provides scant hope for a peaceful and inclusive government to emerge, even in the event of Isil being eradicated. Far more likely is the continuation of pre-existing conflicts and the emergence of new crises from the rubble of Raqqa. British bombs might hasten the end of this phase of the conflict, if supported by a real and reliable land army, but it is only diplomatic, financial and, crucially, regional political pressure that stands a chance of any form of stability.

Maybe these questions would shrink in size if I truly felt our security at home would be increased by our bombing Isil in Syria.  But I do not.  Isil is a terrorist organisation, but it is also an insurgent army, an idea and a brand. It’s monstrous reach out of Syria, to Paris most tragically, but potentially to any of our towns and cities, may well be in planning, arming and instigating. And I am sure that the Security Services could draw evil, concrete connections between Raqqa and the Bata’clan. But Isil’s reach, and its strength, is intangible too: in its propaganda and cultural call to arms.

The only way we can be sure of defeating the Isil threat to our streets and in the region, is to find a long term political solution in Syria.  Unfortunately in my judgement, the proposals put in front of us to vote on this week do not offer that potential.  The prime route to ensuring that Isil’s capacity to threaten Western Europe is destroyed is to build on the recent peace talks in Vienna, with the aim of constructing a concerted international strategy on defeating Isil.  For this to be successful, global and regional partners must play a central part in the strategy, showing that the world is united in opposition to the poisonous ideology of Isil. And Arab nations, with Sunni majorities, must be in the vanguard of both peace talks and any military action.  

Finally, I repeat that these are judgements, not facts, and I may well be proved wrong. But I reach my conclusion as an internationalist, a European and someone who loves France and the French people. Their call for us to join with them is, for this MP, by far the most compelling to step up our engagement to actual combat at their side. But it is neither unpatriotic nor cowardly for us not to do so. The UN Resolution and NATO Treaty invoked by France, call on us to engage in ‘such action as it (the individual member states or NATO as a whole) deems necessary, including the use of armed force’. That tells me that any action our Government undertakes, including bombing, will be legal. But is does not tell me whether it will be strategic and wise, politically or militarily. And just as we cannot outsource our defence to our allies in the US or France, nor too can we outsource our judgement.

And so, until there is a better plan on the table, I will vote against. 


Owen Smith is Labour MP for Pontypridd and Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions.