Detainee transfer puts U.S. closer to removing stain of Guantánamo
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Guantánamo just got one step closer to closure. This week, the detention camp’s population decreased by about 20 percent when 15 detainees were transferred to the United Arab Emirates. It’s a much overdue, yet monumentally important step toward finally erasing the moral and legal stain that is Guantánamo. Unfortunately, this transfer has also served as a platform for public figures to eagerly score cheap points by denouncing the transfers. The ease with which many are able to use this event to deal in misinformation and fearmongering demonstrates that, when it comes to Guantánamo, the U.S. public is not paying enough attention.

It wasn’t always this way. Some may remember that iconic photo that received widespread news coverage during the detention camp’s early days. It showed human beings clad in bright orange jumpsuits, kneeling in outdoor cages that resembled dog kennels. That crude structure was called Camp X-Ray, and it was the start of the nearly fifteen-year symbol of indefinite detention and torture that sparked international outrage and is recognized today by just one word: Guantánamo.

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A lot has changed since that picture was taken. There’s now a sprawling multimillion-dollar complex of detention sites, a makeshift courtroom with the Orwellian label of “Camp Justice,” and a thriving military base populated with fast food chains and gift shops.

But the original Camp X-Ray is still there. I saw it for myself just weeks ago during a visit to Guantánamo Bay. I saw the cages and the wire, still standing yet abandoned to the weeds and wildlife. As I stood there under the bright Cuban sun, far away from cell phone service, television cameras, or a reliable internet connection, I couldn’t help but wonder: Is anyone still paying attention to what’s going on in Guantánamo?

I can’t remember the last time I saw the nightly news cover the ongoing pre-trial proceedings against the alleged plotters of the 9/11 attacks. Few seem to know that the trial hasn’t actually started yet, and probably won’t start for years to come. On the rare occasions that Guantánamo does come up in political debates, public figures predictably attempt to equate “Guantanamo detainee” with the word “terrorist,” ignoring that transferred detainees have never been convicted of a crime, and most have never even been charged. As a result, I suspect that a quick poll of friends and family would reveal that Guantánamo barely registers in the U.S. public consciousness, even as it nears its fifteenth anniversary.

Indeed, time has seemed to slowly chip away at the public’s interest in this place.  But it is imperative not to forget Guantánamo or to abandon efforts to close it. Here’s why it still matters:

First, public pressure is urgently needed to at last secure accountability for the systematic torture of detainees. There are 27 detainees still at Guantánamo who were captured and detained by the CIA prior to their transfer to Guantánamo, and many or all of those individuals were subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. They were subjected to mock executions, waterboarding, beatings, forced nudity and other sexual abuse – and not a single senior official has yet faced accountability. This impunity for torture has affected public perception, evidenced by polls that show that many Americans believe torture may be warranted under some circumstances. Ignoring the torture survivors at Guantánamo will only put off the accountability that is desperately needed in order to avoid a future return to torture.

Secondly, there still has not been justice for the crimes against humanity that took place on Sept. 11, 2001. The family members of the victims and survivors have the right to truth, justice, and accountability for the crimes that were committed, but Guantánamo’s ill-conceived structures cannot provide that justice. Instead of fair trials in federal court, the U.S. government chose to create a pseudo-court system from scratch, in the form of military commissions that fall short of international fair trial standards. I observed the commissions proceedings recently, and was stunned by their inefficiency and delays, which in some cases are caused by the very decision to locate the 9/11 trial at Guantánamo. Many close observers place the actual trial’s start date years from now. In short, it’s a mess. The failed military commissions could continue without change and without justice, if the public continues to ignore that they’re happening.

Lastly, the stakes are simply too high to forget about Guantánamo now. Indefinite detention is a violation of international human rights law, and should not be embraced by a country that holds itself out as a global leader. By continuing to prop up a parallel detention system in which individuals can be held for more than a decade without charge or trial, the United States has a built a dangerous precedent upon which human rights violations can be normalized and then expanded upon. The public has been primed to accept violations of rights in the name of national security, and that is a treacherous foundation on which to build a future.

Now that I’ve seen it with my own eyes, I will never forget Guantánamo. For the sake of our collective future, I hope the U.S. public won’t forget it, either.

Elizabeth Beavers is Policy & Activism Coordinator for Amnesty International USA's Security with Human Rights program.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.