Our PM is not as powerless about Guantánamo’s future as he claims. He could start by insisting on Shaker Aamer’s release
Guantánamo Bay detainees kneel during an early morning Islamic prayer. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images
News that hunger-striking detainees at Guantánamo Bay will be force-fed during Ramadan – “before dusk and after sunset in order to accommodate their religious practices” – exposes the wanton cruelty of the utterly unacceptable situation at the detention camp.
There is every reason to believe that the Guantánamo military authorities are serially breaching medical ethics in forcibly feeding dozens of mentally competent (though clearly desperate) detainees. The situation is both morally and legally indefensible. Yet although the Guantánamo authorities appear hell-bent on containing the protest at all costs, there’s little doubt that the hunger strike has forced the issue on to President Obama’s political radar. Almost every set-piece speech from Obama these days seems to mention how he’s going to redouble his efforts to close Guantánamo. He’s going to “come back” to the issue; see what can be done.
Apparently galvanised by this, David Cameron recently said he’d be writing to Obama seeking to “expedite” the release of Shaker Aamer, the last former UK resident still at Guantánamo. Is this apparent breakthrough the political movement that will end the impasse?
There’s a good deal of spinning going on here. It’s long been put about that the US president’s hands have been tied by an intransigent US Congress hostile to any notion of detainees labelled as “terrorists” being released from Guantánamo. Under this logic the president has been almost as much of a captive of the political situation as the detainees themselves.
But though the obstacles are certainly real, they’re by no means insurmountable. While successive national defence authorisation acts have indeed imposed a string of conditions on the US secretary of defence over any releases – a so-called “certification” process – there’s also a waiver system for some of the conditions. Further, Obama has himself signed the NDAA laws into force – if hands have been tied, they have been so knowingly.
British ministers such as William Hague seem to recognise that any obstacles can be overcome. On the one hand Hague and Foreign Office officials speak of the NDAA as having “all but precluded” the possibility of putting Aamer and others on planes out of Guantánamo. On the other, apparently mindful of the UK’s required part in the NDAA-mandated arrangement, they insist they “continue to work with US counterparts to consider the implications of the act”. Well it’s not rocket science. The apparent impasse is certainly navigable if the political will is there. In a recent letter to Obama, US senator Carl Levin spelt out the fact that there exists a “clear route” for the transfer of detainees to third countries in “appropriate cases”.
Obama and Cameron are trying to present the issue as one where they, two can-do politicians, will now “work hard” to find a solution. Yet it’s not as if either political leader deserves any great plaudits for simply saying they’re going to try to end this scandalous situation. The authorities shouldn’t be force-feeding mentally competent detainees, but then neither should they be holding 166 detainees in a remote military prison camp in the Caribbean, most of whom have faced no criminal charge whatsoever and see no prospect of being released.
Lest we forget, this is a mess of the US’s own making. It should never have taken detainees to Guantánamo in the first place, a move with dire consequences for the nearly 800 people at one time or another incarcerated there – and serious consequences too for the US’s already less-than-perfect human rights record. Last month’s appointment of the Washington lawyer Clifford Sloane to the role of a state department post to help negotiate Guantánamo transfer arrangements, at long last provided some hope for the beginnings of a way out of the mess, but it’s woefully late in the day.
Meanwhile, with the hunger strike grinding on and on and political promises to close Guantánamo being made with increasing regularity, we need urgent remedial action. The Guantánamo detention facility ought to be closed entirely and in the absence of charges before a US federal court, all detainees should be safely released. In Aamer’s case there appears to be no legal impediment whatsoever to quickly arranging for him to be reunited with his family back in Britain.
Cameron’s letter to the US president should insist that the UK will do everything in its power to urgently secure Aamer’s liberation from Guantánamo. Our new campaign calls on the prime minister to do exactly this. Three-and-half thousand miles away in Washington, the US president should do the same. Less talk, more action.