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USCCB: Close ‘Gitmo’ Now

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Human rights continue to be violated at the prison

Lost in the momentous news events of last week was a call by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for the expeditious release of 86 prisoners languishing at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, also known as ‘Gitmo.’ The detainees, some of whom have been incarcerated for 11 years, were cleared for release three years ago, but the Obama Administration has refused to repatriate them to their home countries. In a June 25 letter addressed to US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Bishop Richard Pates (Des Moines), chair of the USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace, deplores the US Government’s treatment of the men.  “The indefinite detention of detainees,” Bishop Pates writes, “is not only injurious to those individuals, it also wounds the moral reputation of our nation, compromises our commitment to the rule of law, and undermines our struggle against terrorism.”

Bishop Pates notes that the US Government has reportedly been force-feeding up to one hundred prisoners who have staged a hunger strike in solidarity with the 86 men. “Detainees retain basic human rights,” Pates writes in his letter to Hagel. “The International Committee of the Red Cross has indicated its opposition to forced feeding. The procedure involves shackling and strapping down the detainee as a tube is inserted through the nose into the stomach. Rather than resorting to such measures, our nation should first do everything it can to address the conditions of despair that have led to this protest.” Bishop Pates concludes his letter by calling on the Obama Administration to close the camp altogether, saying that it has become “a symbol of indefinite detention without trial.” President Obama first promised to close Gitmo during his 2008 campaign for the White House.

Bishop Pates’ current letter is the second time in recent months that the USCCB has criticized the Administration’s conduct of the so-called “global war on terror.” In May, Bishop Pates sent letters to National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon and the chairmen of several congressional committees with military oversight, asking them to reassess the use targeted drone strikes, which Pates said “seem to violate the law of war, international human rights law, and moral norms.” The USCCB’s Committee on International Justice and Peace is comprised of nine member bishops, five consulting bishops – including the Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio, Archbishop of the Military Services – and several lay consultants, including retired Army major general and Harvard law professor, Mary Ann Glendon.

In a sense, the Committee (and by extension the USCCB) is calling the US government back to its historic position regarding the treatment of prisoners. Thirty years ago, while attending US Army Officer Candidate School, my class took a field trip to the Andersonville National Historic Site in Georgia. Andersonville was the home of Camp Sumter, a notorious Confederate prisoner of war camp. Between April 1864 and May 1865, 45,000 Union solders were incarcerated at Andersonville. Of those, almost 13,000 died of disease, starvation and exposure. For sheer horror, photos of liberated Andersonville prisoners rival those taken after the liberation of Nazi death camps eighty years later. Standing within the relatively small enclosure that had housed suffering multitudes, it was hard to believe that such a monstrous crime could have happened on American soil, and to American soldiers. But the most difficult thing to accept was that the perpetrators had also been Americans.  

The memory of Andersonville no doubt played a role in the United States becoming a signatory to all four of the Geneva Conventions, beginning in 1882, and including the Third Geneva Convention in 1929, which created a comprehensive template for the treatment of prisoners of war. During World War II, nearly half a million prisoners of war, mostly German, were detained in 700 camps scattered across all but three US states. Those prisoners were treated in accordance with the Geneva accords, and most were repatriated following the war. In 1949, the Geneva Conventions were updated again, this time in response to outrages visited upon American, British, and Russian prisoners by the Germans and Japanese. Once again, the United States was a signatory and a major force behind the agreement, which remains the global standard. That treaty demands that prisoners be handled humanely in all circumstances, and specifically prohibits torture, humiliating or degrading treatment, trials by irregular courts, and the even the denial of legal due process.

Each of those prohibitions has been abrogated by the United States since the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent global “war on terror.”  The Guantanamo Bay detention camp stands alongside the prison at Abu Ghraib as a symbol of disregard for international law, including the very treaties we advocated and signed a few short decades ago. Gitmo, which is located within the boundaries of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base on the western tip of the island of Cuba, gained its first prisoners on January 11, 2002. The Bush Administration, which had gone to war in Afghanistan a few months earlier, was looking for a place where men caught on the battlefield could be detained and interrogated without the protection of US law. At the time, the Bush Administration also asserted that since none of those detained wore the uniform of a foreign military service, the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to them. The Supreme Court of the United States later rejected that assertion, but not before Gitmo became infamous as a proving ground for “enhanced interrogation techniques” (read: torture), degrading treatment, and the denial of due process (in short, much of what signatories to the Fourth Geneva Convention were supposed to have abjured).  Since it opened, Gitmo has hosted 779 men. Of those, 600 were released without any charges being filed, sometimes after years of captivity and harsh treatment. Another 166 remain, including the 86 cleared for release three years ago. Only two of the 166 face any charges at all. Nine men have died at the facility. The US government claims six of those were suicides. Only seven prisoners have ever been convicted, even in secret military trials.

In his 2008 campaign for President, Barack Obama called Gitmo “a sad chapter in American history” and pledged to close the facility in his first year. In December of 2009, eleven months after he took office, the President signed an order formally closing Gitmo and transferring detainees to federal prisons on the mainland.  But nothing happened, and to date Gitmo continues to operate. Obama has blamed Congress and the courts, but these excuses aren’t credible, especially given the vast and unprecedented powers the president has appropriated for himself in pursuit of the “war on terror,” including the right to indefinitely detain and even assassinate American citizens, as well as the entire panoply of surveillance powers now deployed by the National Security Agency. If President Obama wanted the camp at Guantanamo Bay closed, it would be closed.

Which brings us back to the letter from Bishop Pates to Secretary Hagel. Citing the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Pates appropriately acknowledges the serious threat posed by terrorism: “Acts of terrorism strike at the heart of human dignity…; ‘there exists, therefore, a right to defend oneself from terrorism’.” But he goes on to quote the bishops themselves, who in the aftermath of 9/11 declared that, “We must not only act justly but be perceived as acting justly if we are to succeed in winning popular support against terrorism.” Guantanamo Bay is a place where the United States has acted unjustly, and is arguably still doing so. By keeping it open, President Obama not only continues to perpetuate an actual injustice against the scores of prisoners held without charge or trial, but in the words of Bishop Pates, he also “wounds the moral reputation of our nation.”

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