I often think about what inspires change and why change doesn’t happen, especially in egregious situations. Acknowledgement of the problem is the first thing needed for change. Once headline news, time has forgotten the dilemma and tragedies of Guantanamo Bay.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay (referred to here as Gitmo) outside of US legal jurisdiction and the laws of war. The farther we get from the shock of 9/11 and the establishment of Gitmo in response, the easier it is to forget what an aberration and abomination it is.
Gitmo was established out of fear. The US argued that it needed to protect itself from terrorists who didn’t play by the rules of war. Members of Al Qaeda were willing to fly planes into buildings full of innocent people. We were afraid.
In 2002 the US constructed the prison on a US military base in Cuba. The prison is outside of US legal jurisdiction because it is not on US soil. The US claimed that those incarcerated there were not prisoners of war, protected under the Geneva Convention. They were terrorists and classified as “unlawful enemy combatants.” To manage this designation, the US invented a military commission to try and judge those so imprisoned. Thus, started a 20-year legal battle over a sham “justice” system.
Since opening, over 800 men have been imprisoned in Gitmo. They came from many countries but were all swept up in efforts to corral members of Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. Many were tortured along the way. Today, only 39 remain. 19 of those have been “recommended for transfer.” This can be a cruel designation as some have held this status for decades without leaving Gitmo. Only one person has been transferred since 2016.
Over the years we have learned that we should have been more afraid of ourselves. Gitmo and what it represented, the willingness for the US to operate outside of the laws of war, the use of CIA black sites and torture. Gitmo is a reminder of the worst of US exceptionalism. If we don’t like the rules of the game, we won’t let them apply to us.
If the moral weight of the prison isn’t enough to make us want to change. Gitmo should be closed because it prevents some of those charged with the 9/11 attacks from being held accountable. After 20 years the military commissions have brought none of them to justice because it is not a real court. Out of respect for the families of the lost, we should bring these men to trial in a real US court.
Closing Gitmo is not easy, but that doesn’t mean there are not solutions. Almost all of those formerly held in Gitmo have been transferred to other countries. Uruguay resettled 6 men cleared for release during the Obama Administration. Countries could be incentivized to take the 19 with transfer status. While Congress has restricted the use of funds to transfer detainees to US soil – and the US justice process – the President could veto that legislation. There are blueprints for emptying the prison, trying those charged, and closing this chapter of history.
The hardest problems to solve are the ones that no one owns. While we no longer think about the Gitmo prison, the US owns it. We own holding people for decades without charge; we own the torture committed against some of the prisoners; we own the fact that we have created a sham judicial process that will never work; and, we own the need to legitimately prosecute those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks.
I’m not sure what will finally prompt this change, but I do know that it won’t close if we forget the multiple tragedies that it represents.
* Joy Olson is the former Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a research and advocacy organization working to advance human rights. Twitter: @JoyLeeOlson