Nineteen years ago today, the administration of President George W. Bush sent the first detainees to the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center for the purpose of detaining them beyond the reach of U.S. law. As the prison enters its 20th year, 40 detainees remain there, detained indefinitely, most without charge and none having received a fair trial. Many were tortured. There has been no accountability – either for their alleged crimes or for their mistreatment.
Even the five men accused of orchestrating the September 11 attacks have yet to receive a trial, which has denied accountability for the loved ones of those killed and injured that day. Meanwhile, the United States has lost its credibility advocating for respect for human rights elsewhere as long as it fails to acknowledge its own grave violations and until it holds the perpetrators of torture accountable.
As a new president prepares to enter the White House and become the fourth incumbent to preside over the prison, he should quickly commit to closing it.
Speaking at the Munich Security Conference in February 2009, then-Vice President Joe Biden told the audience that “We will uphold the rights of those who we bring to justice. And we will close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay.” A dozen years later, he will have the opportunity to live up to that promise. He should seize it.
Importantly, Biden need not wait for Congress to change the law to close Guantanamo. As numerous authors and experts have explained at Just Security, Biden already has all of the authority he needs to address the situations of each of the 40 remaining detainees, and to close the detention center once and for all. While some situations may be difficult, and their solutions imperfect, that can no longer be an excuse for the United States to turn its back on this serious problem of its own creation. Biden can and must put an end to Guantanamo and hold perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable.
Amnesty International, where I work, has just released this new report reviewing the history and status of the prison, and insisting that it be closed. Of course, we are hardly alone. Calls for closing Guantanamo have ranged from President Bush to President Barack Obama, the military to medical professionals, international jurists to a wide range of human rights organizations and local activists, to the late Republican Senator John McCain. Among the former government officials who support closure are five secretaries of defense, eight secretaries of state, six national security advisors, five chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and dozens of retired generals and admirals.
With a new administration taking office, a new urgency and energy are needed, accompanied by a genuine commitment to truth, accountability, and remedy, and a recognition that this issue must not be allowed to drift any longer.