Why has Obama failed to close Guantanamo Bay?
The detention camp at Guantanamo Bay has become perhaps the most potent and divisive symbol of America’s “War on Terror,” and one which then-Senator Barack Obama promised to end during his 2008 presidential campaign. Yet there are still 166 detainees being held at the camp, and the past few months have seen the longest hunger strike in its 11-year history.
The detention camp was established in the early months of the War on Terror by then-President George W. Bush, following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan.
The Bush administration asserted that the threat of future terrorist attacks justified the use of interrogation techniques verging on torture. The designation of suspected al-Qaeda members as “enemy combatants,” rather than prisoners of war, was used as a means of circumventing the Geneva Conventions, allowing for the application of “enhanced interrogation techniques” against them. Hundreds of suspected terrorists or terrorist supporters were sent to Guantanamo Bay from Afghanistan, often including those of dubious value to US intelligence operations.
The sight of hundreds of detainees — shackled outdoors in orange jumpsuits — brought discomfort to many as the international goodwill towards America following 9/11 soon dissipated. As the wars in Afghanistan and then Iraq became increasingly drawn out, Guantanamo Bay came to represent American overreach in its battle against terrorism.
With reports of repeated sessions of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques, along with a series of deaths including six suicides, the Guantanamo Bay’s reputation continued to worsen. Obama, while running for presidency, claimed that the camp had damaged America’s image abroad and promised to close it — one of his first acts in office was to order the closure of the detention center within a year.
Why is Guantanamo Bay Relevant?
Despite a frequently proclaimed desire to close the detention camp, President Obama has made very little progress in doing so. Consequently, there are currently 166 detainees still being housed at Guantanamo Bay, more than half of whom have been cleared for transfer since January 2010.
The failure to address the status of these detainees, along with the reported seizure of personal items and mishandling of the Qur’an in February 2013, provoked an extended hunger strike which continues today. While hunger strikes have been fairly regular occurrences at the camp since 2005, the current one is notable not just for its duration, but for the number of detainees taking part — reportedly more than 100 at the strike’s peak.
Many of the strikers have been subjected to forced feedings by the camp’s medical staff. The strike has succeeded in drawing the attention of the international press, forcing President Obama to address the issue of remaining detainees once again.
The blame for the lack of progress has been placed on obstacles such as congressional opposition to the relocating of detainees to mainland facilities, and difficulties in ensuring the safety of those approved for transfer to their home countries.
Regarding the first of these obstacles, US politicians have proven themselves determined not to permit Guantanamo detainees to be moved to the US. Plans to house the remaining detainees in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, or in the Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois, were abandoned in the face of steadfast opposition from local and national officials. At several junctures, Congress has voted to prevent any transfers of prisoners to the US, against the wishes of the president.
Transfers have been further inhibited by poor security situations in the home countries of many detainees, most notably Yemen. Of the 86 detainees approved for transfer, 56 are Yemeni nationals, yet there has been a moratorium on transfers to that country. On May 23 of this year, President Obama announced that this moratorium was finally being lifted, but so far, no transfers have occurred since then.
Even if all of those cleared for transfer are removed from Guantanamo Bay — and US jurisdiction altogether — there would remain a further 80 detainees whose status has not been addressed. Of this number, 46 have been designated for indefinite detention, on the grounds that they have been deemed too dangerous for release, but cannot be tried in court. This is either due to a lack of sufficient evidence against them, or to the inadmissibility of such evidence for having been obtained under duress.
Thus, despite a purported desire within the Obama administration to address this issue once and for all, there seems little prospect of the detention camp being closed in the near future. With only seven of the remaining detainees currently facing charges, the Guantanamo Bay will likely remain as a kind of judicial limbo until a viable solution can be found.