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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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.