"The basic proposition here is that somebody who comes into the United States of America illegally, who conducts a terrorist operation killing thousands of innocent Americans, men, women, and children, is not a lawful combatant. They don't deserve to be treated as a prisoner of war. They don't deserve the same guarantees and safeguards that would be used for an American citizen going through the normal judicial process.... [T]hey will have a fair trial, but it'll be under the procedures of a military tribunal.... We think [it] guarantees that we'll have the kind of treatment of these individuals that we believe they deserve."
--Vice President Dick Cheney 14 November 2001 (1)
Prosecution of the war against terror has resulted in the detention by the United States of at least 650 citizens from more than 40 countries at military detention facilities on the US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (2) Although the Bush Administration has held firm to the position expressed in the above quotation by the Vice President almost four years ago, the legality of this position continues to elicit significant worldwide commentary and, indeed, the interest of the US Supreme Court. (3) While the Administration's position has a number of prominent defenders, (4) much international expert opinion has weighed in on the other side of the debate. Some of this opinion has been particularly critical. Justice Richard Goldstone, (5) for example, the former Chief Prosecutor in the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, stated in a BBC interview in late 2003 that "a future American President will have to apologize for Guantanamo." (6) In the spring and early summer of 2005, a number of US politicians--Republicans as well as Democrats--suggested that perhaps the time had come to close the Guantanamo prison.
The question of how to deal with the detainees in the ongoing Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) is, however, an extremely difficult issue. The subject has not only generated worldwide commentary, but rifts within the Bush Administration itself. (7) Following 9/11, the Administration invoked extraordinary wartime powers to establish a new system of military justice that would match a very different type of conflict. As the Administration sought to apply those powers, it became mired in problems that it is still struggling to solve.
In this article, the competing positions on the legal status of the detainees are assessed. First, the article outlines why Guantanamo Bay was chosen as a location for detainee operations. It then outlines the competing positions on the Prisoner of War (POW) status of the detainees and the competing views on the due process protections that should be provided detainees charged with war crimes. The article then discusses the wider effects that the Administration's policies in Guantanamo Bay are having on the Global War on Terrorism. The article concludes with recommendations for an alternative approach to deal with the detainees. The recommended approach outlined in this article aims to regain the initiative for the Bush Administration. It seeks to recapture much-needed international legitimacy, thereby creating greater diplomatic space within which opportunities to harness broader international support and involvement in the Global War on Terrorism can be pursued.
Why Guantanamo Bay?
The United States and its coalition partners remain at war against al Qaeda and its affiliates, both in Afghanistan and in further operations around the world. Since Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in 1996, al Qaeda and its affiliates have launched repeated attacks that have killed thousands of innocent Americans and hundreds of civilians from other countries. (8) The Bush Administration states that the law of armed conflict governs what it terms "the war between the US and al Qaeda" and therefore establishes the rules for detention of enemy combatants. …