How many people have to die before Obama takes personal responsibility for Guantanamo?

"I will go back at this," the President claimed. But when? While he wrings his hands and blames Congress, men who have been denied justice are protesting in the only way they can - refusing to eat.

I am sitting at Guantánamo, looking at something my clients here have in twelve years never viewed: the sea. It is my last day here. This morning one of my hungerstriking clients, Shaker Aamer, refused to come out. This, apparently, is because the camp powers are trying their hardest to break the men’s strike. First was the Camp VI block raid, after which every man was locked in isolation and stripped of his main emotional anchor – his fellow prisoners. The second tactic seems to be to subject each prisoners to such indignities if he wishes to speak to his lawyer that he will conclude that the conversation is just not worth the groping.  Outright censorship looks bad when your motto is "Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent"; so, the authorities have concluded, best to engineer a situation where it looks as if the prisoners "voluntarily" do not come out.

Shaker was not the first to refuse. Another hungerstriking client refused for the same reason yesterday. As I waited for him, in one of Gitmo’s daily ironies, guards in the sally port chit-chatted idly about their favourite foods and US restaurants for forty-five continuous minutes. Which is better; Olive Garden, or Red Lobster? And the lobster itself: delicious, or disgusting bug-like crustacean?

If those guards had ever looked these 130 starving men in the eye and seen their humanity, they showed no sign of it. But I don’t blame them; they are bored young soldiers, perhaps trapped, in their posts, although not as trapped my clients are. Defence officials have proclaimed this strike is a plaintive attention grab. To those who believe this even for a second I say: try not eating for a day. Or two. Then tell me that to starve yourself for over 120 days, as my clients now have, reveals anything other than abject desperation. 

My clients cannot believe President Obama would really have forgotten them and his promise to them at the beginning of his term.  My client Nabil’s jaw drops when I explain that yes, Obama really did close the State Department office that was meant to get cleared men like you out earlier this year – and no, it wasn’t because he assigned some other official to help you. Today, Nabil seems to be no one’s responsibility. 

Obama, when a journalist finally coaxed him into making a public statement about the hunger strike, was tight-lipped and embarrassed – having decided not to do nothing for the 166 souls here for the remainder of his presidency. "I will go back at this," he said. How? When? With more hand-wringing about Congress? The starving men are unimpressed. His later speech was long on rhetoric and short on detail, while Senators have urged him to use the power he already has to send men home.

It is impossible to overstate how devastating Obama’s indifference is to a desperate man. My clients live in a bubble. A concrete, razor-wired bubble, but one in which the tiniest scrap of information takes on enormous significance. Wild rumors of release – to Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait, anywhere – echo around the blocks for months, even years. For they have nothing else to sustain them.

I tried to explain to poor Nabil that in a way, President Obama lived in a bubble too. He must have forgotten all of you, I said, because a wall of White House bureaucrats shoved your suffering out of his sight, kept you at the bottom of his pile. Men in the White House wholike Greg Craig, who tried to keep Obama’s much-repeated promise to free you? Those men were edged out by Rahm Emanuel. Craig lost his job. Obama spent the majority of his first term in an echo chamber consisting mainly of people who insisted that political expediency demanded leaving my clients here to die.

Today, my task is to make my clients real to Barack Obama. The military makes this as difficult as possible, by robbing the men of their two greatest assets: their voices, and their faces. Two journalists at the base with me were furious because a haunting photo they took of a very hungry man was deleted by camp authorities. The ostensible reason for this was to protect his privacy – the real reason, of course, is that with the face of a suffering man comes empathy.

Much the same thing happened a few weeks ago, when the New York Times published an op-ed based on a telephone call between me and my client. Within hours I had journalists ringing saying "military sources" claimed I broke some rule. I sighed, and explain that a government censor was on a call, that we had done such things many times before, and that no rule had been violated. The only rule I broke was an unspoken one: Never Make the Prisoner Human.

How many more humans will have to die before Barack Obama takes personal responsibility for this prison? Stop blaming Congress. Enough excuses. My clients say they will start to eat if – and only if – cleared men start to go home. 

Cori Crider is Strategic Director at Reprieve. She is also an attorney for Reprieve's clients in Guantanamo

A view over Guantanamo Bay. Photograph: Getty Images

Cori Crider is Strategic Director at Reprieve. She is also an attorney for Reprieve's clients in Guantanamo.

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.