Can Obama Close Guantanamo Bay?

In January 2002, Guantanamo Bay detention centre opened its doors to receive the first of 779 total detainees, prisoners of President George W Bush’s War on Terror. The new facility, situated in Cuba, soon attracted criticism from humanitarian institutions and legal professionals alike. Yet, despite the US Supreme Court ruling the centre unlawful, it remained open until the departure of the Bush administration. At the start of his Presidency in 2009, Barack Obama announced plans to finally close the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. Six years later, however, the prison is still running. The question remains, as Obama reaches the end of his presidency: will he be able to close Guantanamo Bay for good?

Ever since the opening of Camp Delta in 2002, Guantanamo Bay has been plagued with accusations of injustice and torture. Prisoners have been detained for up to 13 years without being granted rights to a fair trial and only three have ever been charged and convicted of a crime. Meanwhile, 92% of detainees have not been categorised by the US government as Al-Qaeda fighters. Their alleged guilt has never been, and it appears never will be, proven. 21 were children at the time of imprisonment and 9 have died in custody. A senate report on the CIA’s use of torture, published in December, found that water boarding, rectal feeding, mock executions and sleep deprivation were just some of the torture techniques employed at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere in the years following 9/11. More than 200 FBI agents have reported abuse of Guantanamo’s prisoners over the years. In short, the prison represents the antithesis of the humanitarian and ethical values that the United States claims to stand for.

Three times during the Bush administration, in 2004, 2006 and 2008, the US Supreme Court found detention policy at Guantanamo to be in violation of the constitution. Although 532 prisoners were released during his Presidency, the demands of the Supreme Court to close the centre entirely were not met. When Obama made his oath to close Guantanamo in 2009 it seemed that the remaining detainees would finally have their freedom. This was until Congress blocked the move that May, with the Senate voting 90 to 6 to keep the detainees from being moved to other US establishments. The concern was that this might make US prisons a greater terrorist target and thus impact negatively on national security. This has been the nature of negotiations ever since, with the President attempting to reach consensus while Congress maintains its ban on transferring prisoners to US soil for reasons of American national security. A poll carried out last year discovered that only 29% of Americans agree with Obama on this matter, yet human rights will continue to be infringed if the detention centre remains open.

Despite lack of Congressional backing, some progress has been made in recent months. President Obama called in November for the speedier transfer of those detainees cleared for release. Over the course of December, 11 men were resettled in Uruguay and Kazakhstan and as a result there are now only 122 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay; less than half of the number at the start of Obama’s time in office. In the eyes of Clifford Sloan, State Department special envoy on Guantanamo until December 31, these transfers are a good sign. He said in December, “I strongly believe that momentum leads to more momentum. The smaller the number, the more manageable the issue is and the more overwhelming the arguments for closure.”

Some of the individuals remaining within the walls of Guantanamo Bay are considered highly dangerous criminals, including the five men implicated in the 9/11 attacks. Others, however, still protest their own innocence and have received support from thousands around the world demanding their freedom. Shaker Aamer is the last UK citizen to remain at the prison and his case has received attention across the globe. Arrested in Afghanistan in 2001, where he maintains he was doing charity work, he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay as one of its first detainees in 2002. Aamer has spent much of the last 13 years in solitary confinement, suffering torture which has brought about post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to coping with other health conditions including diabetes and arthritis.

Cleared for transfer six years ago, Aamer will never face trial and has a wife and children still awaiting his return to Britain. Following calls from the UK government, President Obama has promised to prioritise his release, but it is not yet clear whether this is another empty promise.

In addition to giving this assurance, Obama used his penultimate State of the Union address in January to renew his pledge to shut down Guantanamo Bay once and for all. It still seems unlikely that Congress will ever make this a reality by allowing prisoner transfers into the US. If they do not, it remains to be seen whether Obama will achieve his goal by the end of his time in office. What is clear, for now, is that 122 men, innocent until proven guilty, are still suffering at the hands of the US government. As President Obama said in his State of the Union address: “As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice …[Guantanamo Bay] is not who we are,” and nor should it be.

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