Closing Guantanamo: It Is the Most Potent Symbol of the Abuses of the Bush Era: Obama's Swift Decision to Shut Down Guantanamo Bay Prison Has Been Hailed as a New Dawn for Justice. but It Will Only Be So, Warns Clive Stafford Smith, If the Lessons of the Past Are Truly Learned

By Smith, Clive ord | New Statesman (1996), February 2, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Closing Guantanamo: It Is the Most Potent Symbol of the Abuses of the Bush Era: Obama's Swift Decision to Shut Down Guantanamo Bay Prison Has Been Hailed as a New Dawn for Justice. but It Will Only Be So, Warns Clive Stafford Smith, If the Lessons of the Past Are Truly Learned


Smith, Clive ord, New Statesman (1996)


Before the place closes, I might have a couple more opportunities to get down to Guantanamo Bay. Nothing very much has changed. Some of the soldiers have become disillusioned, knowing that their orders place them on the wrong side of history. They talk more, they try to make life a little easier on the prisoners. Their commanders have become more dogmatic, if that were possible, like terriers who refuse to give up a bone.

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In a way, I am going to miss Guantanamo. It's an odd notion, but I've been there more than 20 times, more than six months in all. Sometimes, the true joy of tilting at windmills comes when there is an ogre in the White House. Now they are gone, George W Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, the entire Axis of Evil.

Only a few days ago, on 20 January, Americans welcomed in the new year with the inauguration of Barack Obama. The new president immediately demonstrated that he means business, taking a break between dances at his ten inaugural balls to start issuing executive orders. The first 24 hours saw four decrees: the closure of Guantanamo Bay (within a year), a review of US detention policies (including the closure of CIA "black sites"), a review of US "transfer" policies (the euphemism for extraordinary rendition), and an evaluation of what position the administration should take in the case of Ali al-Marri, the only person held in extrajudicial detention on US soil for more than seven years in the "war on terror". Obama did more for the rule of law in one day than George W Bush did in eight years.

However, while this may herald a new dawn, we are very far from the end of the day. If there is one lesson that must be learned from Bush's catalogue of mistakes it is that we should not go hanging up the "Mission Accomplished" banner in too much of a hurry. Bush made his infamous announcement on the USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May 2003, only 41 days after the invasion of Iraq. Almost six years later, it is sobering to note that more than 96 per cent of the US and coalition casualties came after Bush claimed that it was all over.

The battle for human rights is no more easily won. It is folly to think that Obama can sign four orders and fix an entire era of human rights abuses. A president, no matter how well-intentioned, can only achieve his goals if he has the necessary information and political support. In terms of information, Obama's limited sources have to be a concern. With each policy review that he has ordered, he has named the players who will issue the report: the attorney general, the secretary of defence, the secretary of state, the secretary of homeland security, the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. For the most part, these are the very institutions that created the problem in the first place. Nowhere does this take into account those who have struggled for change. There are plenty of interest groups opposed to a close analysis of the recent past; others remain convinced that al-Qaeda presents a different paradigm to anything previously encountered, one where the rule of law must give way.

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Closing Guantanamo Bay will be a challenge, not least in terms of determining what will be done with the 240 prisoners detained there. The first group is the easiest - the 140 or so prisoners who can just be repatriated. Ninetyseven are from Yemen, and they would be home already if only the Bush administration had talked to President Saleh.

The second group are refugees who need resettlement: there are around 60, most of whom were picked up in Pakistan for bounties. Here, Obama needs help from his allies to offer them sanctuary, and it is sad that the British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, announced a few days ago that Britain felt it had done enough already. A country that played so integral a part in supporting the mess created by Bush might feel a greater obligation to clean it up.

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Closing Guantanamo: It Is the Most Potent Symbol of the Abuses of the Bush Era: Obama's Swift Decision to Shut Down Guantanamo Bay Prison Has Been Hailed as a New Dawn for Justice. but It Will Only Be So, Warns Clive Stafford Smith, If the Lessons of the Past Are Truly Learned
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