Guantanamo Bay: Why it Matters

By Yigit Topcu

Barack Obama announced on Tuesday a renewed push towards closing the United States military prison of Guantanamo Bay. A long-standing promise of Barack Obama, the prison is described by human rights organizations and the US Supreme Court as a violation of human rights, international law and domestic law.

In 2005 Amnesty International even called the facility the “Gulag of our times”. So what goes on in this prison, and why does it exist?

In 2002, shortly after it opened, Guantanamo Bay was described by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as a place to detain extraordinarily dangerous people, along with interrogating and prosecuting them for war crimes.

The Bush administration asserted that the detention camp itself would be outside the United States’s legal jurisdiction. They further added that the detainees would not be protected under international bodies of law, such as the Geneva Conventions. Both of these assertions have been challenged and frequently struck down by the Supreme Court, and an overwhelming majority in the United Nations say international law still applies to detainees.

Guantanamo Bay became notorious after allegations arose in the mid-2000s of prisoner abuse and torture. Furthermore, many of the prisoners – over half as of today – were found to be unlawfully detained or were arrested and held indefinitely due to being wrongly suspected of terrorism. In 2005, out of the 600 detainees held at there at the time, only about two dozen had any links to al-Qaeda.

Sexual and cultural humiliation of the prisoners, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, prolonged exposure to extreme temperatures, forced positions, solitary confinement and beatings were among some of the methods used on detainees at the facility.

While the Supreme Court acted on these findings and ruled them unconstitutional, the Bush administration, along with the help of Congress from both Republicans and Democrats, actively tried to circumvent such decisions.

One infamous way was in the administration’s Orwellian method of changing the language it used, such as replacing the usage of “torture”, as torture is illegal under domestic and international law, and replacing it with euphemisms such as “enhanced interrogation” to get around court rulings.

So why hasn’t Barack Obama closed it yet? While Obama declared that the facility would be closed within a year after taking office, he has largely adopted the Bush administration’s legal methods for fighting the War on Terror – which, of course, is a war we are still engaged in.

Among such adaptations was the stance that indefinite detention is a lawful US policy. While Barack Obama has regularly blamed the politics of Washington for inaction, he has in reality done little to oppose or change the situation, and has instead used and defended the methods of Guantanamo Bay.

The push to close the facility faded over time, which triggered widespread hunger strikes in 2013. With the absence of political will or action from the administration or Congress to close it, the Obama administration turned to forced feeding the prisoners, while the US military announced it would no longer disclose information on hunger strikes.

Forced feeding has been described by rights groups, including the United Nations Human Rights Commission, as torture sanctioned under the Obama administration. Techniques for forced feedings included rectal feedings and rectal rehydration, or by a tube inserted through the nose and into the stomach.

Now at the end of his presidency and with little time left, Barack Obama has renewed his original goal for closing the facility. The president urged Congress to work with him on this issue by transferring detainees to other countries or to US prisons.

Already however the GOP has largely responded negatively to the proposals. John McCain, who is the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said “the President has missed a major chance to convince the Congress and the American people that he has a responsible plan to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.” House Speaker Paul Ryan said “It is against the law and it will stay against the law to transfer terrorist detainees to American soil. We will not jeopardize our national security over a campaign promise.”

The 2016 presidential field also weighed in. John Kasich said “Some of these people are the worst of the worst. Why would we send them into our country?”. Marco Rubio also criticized the proposal, claiming it is the latest in a string of concessions the Obama administration has given to Castro’s Cuba. Rubio has been a strong critic of normalizing relations with Cuba.

Whether the closure of the facility actually happens or not, it has largely become a political issue for both sides. The Republican Party has quickly stated their opposition with political motivation to seem tough on foreign policy.

Meanwhile Obama’s proposal would not send back or give trials to many of those held indefinitely, but simply move them around while closing the notorious facility itself – an attempt to secure his legacy as the president who ended the “Gulag of our time”, while not really addressing the human rights crises at the heart of the matter.