At a public hearing in Washington, D.C. last week, the region's foremost human rights body, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), asked the United States two simple, but pressing questions about Guantánamo Bay: Does the United States still intend to close the offshore prison? And, if so, what steps are currently underway to achieve that objective?
The answers should have been forthcoming. Guantánamo is now in its second decade of operation and, short of a miracle, it will outlast the U.S. war in Afghanistan -- George Bush and Dick Cheney's pretext for its creation. Three years have passed since the president's deadline to close the prison elapsed. The discredited military commissions system is collapsing -- again. Eighty-six prisoners languish at Guantánamo, despite unanimous approval for transfer from every prominent national security and law enforcement agency in the U.S government. Tragically, nine prisoners have already died in U.S. custody there -- four during President Obama's tenure alone.
Recent accounts from Guantánamo paint a more chilling picture still: since February 6, 2013, the prisoners have been engaged in a peaceful, mass hunger-strike to protest deteriorating camp conditions and religious provocations by Guantánamo staff, including offensive searches of the prisoners' Qur'ans. Ghaleb al-Bihani, a severe diabetic, is among the scores of men hunger-striking. He spoke to his lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights recently and explained that he has lost more than 20 pounds in a matter of weeks. His blood-sugar levels are fluctuating so wildly that Guantánamo physicians have told him they fear for his life. Other prisoners have lost consciousness; some are reportedly coughing up blood. This is to say nothing of the less visible, but equally grave health risks produced by years of indefinite detention. As Physicians for Human Rights explained to the IACHR, arbitrary, indefinite detention creates existential uncertainty that can destroy the body and mind. It can even be lethal. The story of Adnan Latif, the most recent prisoner to die at Guantánamo, is a heart-breaking reminder of this.
Against this backdrop, the United States' answers to the IACHR were telling. Administration officials were unable to offer a single measure that is currently underway to drawdown the prison's population and finally shutter Guantánamo.
Absent from the United States' presentation, for example, was any indication that President Obama will abandon his ill-conceived moratorium on the release of prisoners to Yemen. The moratorium was instituted in 2010 as a political maneuver to silence critics in the wake of the failed "underwear-bomber" attack. And though it paid political dividends for the president, the moratorium amounts to collective punishment for the roughly 90 prisoners (out of 166) who are of Yemeni descent.
This includes CCR's client, Tariq Ba Odah. He has been on an uninterrupted hunger-strike since February 2007 to protest his imprisonment without charge. For the last six years, he has been strapped to a restraint chair each day and force-fed through his nose. Tariq last met with his lawyer, Omar Farah, on December 18, 2012, who reports that Tariq is frail and tired. Sometimes he cancels meetings because sitting upright is too painful. He will eventually wither away without proper medical attention. But he has no chance of release so long as the president continues to choose political expedience over principle. And if the United States' presentation to the IACHR is any indication, the president has also chosen to let an intransigent Congress have the last word on his Guantánamo policy. Congressional obstructionism began in earnest with the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act. Each appropriation bill since has barred the use of funds to transfer Guantánamo prisoners unless the Secretary of Defense personally certifies each man for release. Admittedly, the certification requirements are onerous. That was to be expected; Congress designed them to prevent Guantánamo's closure. Still, I doubt whether even Congress thought the president would abandon his plan to close Guantánamo so easily.
But abandon it he did: President Obama never compelled either Secretary of Defense Gates or Panetta to certify a single prisoner for transfer during their respective tenures -- not even one of the 86 men the administration itself cleared for release. Unfortunately, nothing said at the IACHR suggests that the president will demand Secretary of Defense Hagel break rank with his predecessors.
To be clear, the moratorium on transfers to Yemen and the NDAA are principal causes of the impasse that keeps Guantánamo open. The United States, however, failed to squarely address predictable questions on both issues. It would appear that President Obama has made peace with Guantánamo as an enduring part of his legacy. In fact, one can hardly remember anymore the principled stance he took in 2008. He vowed then to close Guantánamo and to "break the fever of fear" that had subverted American values. That message resonated because it confronted Guantánamo's shameful history. No similar courage or honesty was on display at the IACHR.
Perhaps that is because the president is now on a course that leads inexorably to one result: the aging and death of a population of exclusively Muslim prisoners at an offshore internment camp. That sort of thing is not polite conversation at the convening of an international human rights body. The IACHR should be commended for making a powerful statement that the international community will not soon forget if indeed President Obama condemns the men at Guantánamo to that fate.