BY JAMIE FOSTER
Tom Watson is going on hunger strike for a day to raise awareness of the plight of two detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Ahmed Rabbans and Khalid Qasim. The two have been on hunger strike for 28 days in protest against their detention. The MP is calling on other MPs to follow his example and demanding that Theresa May puts pressure on Donald Trump to close down the Guantanamo facility. Under Donald Trump the authorities at Guantanamo Bay no longer force feed prisoners on hunger strike until they are at death’s door.
Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are held without trial in some cases for over a decade in a military base in Cuba. They are not afforded the rights that prisoners in the US receive. The facility has attracted condemnation from human rights organisations since it first received military prisoners in 2002. About 780 people have been detained at Guantanamo Bay since then, but only 41 remain there today. A number of these are considered too dangerous to ever release.
Guantanamo Bay asks uncomfortable questions about the treatment of prisoners in times of conflict. Is it ever right to hold people without trial? Is indefinite internment ever acceptable? It should be remembered that during the Troubles we held internees in Northern Ireland without trial and allowed hunger strikers to die, so it is not an unprecedented situation. Nonetheless it feels wrong that the most powerful democracy on Earth should allow itself to sidestep the rule of law in the way that Guantanamo Bay appears to do. The very basis for the war on terror that has spawned Guantanamo Bay is the moral superiority of a free, democratic society. Is the US, in holding prisoners without trial or access to justice behaving any better than those it battles with?
The US is faced with a similar conundrum that faced us in the Northern Ireland conflict. It is clear that many of the detainees, captured on the battlefield or as a result of military operations are dangerous. Despite this there may not be admissible evidence available that would allow them to be convicted of any offence. Does that mean they should be released despite the danger they present? It is a difficult question. Obama thought he had the answer and promised to close the facility but in the end he issued an executive order allowing the continued detention of prisoners in Cuba. Interestingly the Bush administration released more people from Guantanamo Bay than the Obama administration.
Perhaps the worst aspect of Guantanamo Bay from a US perspective is that it makes the country look weak, unable to deal with a small category of prisoners in accordance with its own laws and having to rely on a get out clause. The accusations of torture and mistreatment of prisoners undermines American moral authority in the world. Guantanamo is a stain on the US reputation for respect for the rule of law. It represents the limits of a democratic society’s ability to deal justly with its enemies.
It is unlikely that a day off the grub will do Tom Watson any lasting damage. He, and his fellow celebrities fasting to make a point no doubt feel morally empowered by their own actions. Nonetheless Guantanamo Bay is not an easy issue to come to terms with. Donald Trump talked about expanding the number of people held there, of filling it up with ‘bad dudes’, but no new detainees have arrived since he has been in office. In many ways the facility undermines the US legal system, which isn’t tested by the detainees but rather avoids having to deal with them. While the danger posed by the detainees cannot be readily dismissed, it is an unsatisfactory solution to the problem the US faces.
One wonders whether, despite his rhetoric, Donald Trump will oversee the end of Guantanamo Bay as we know it. It would appear that the US may be able to detain prisoners in special facilities on US soil in the future. If that were possible it would mark the end of a particularly troublesome period of US history. Overall it would seem best if the US could find a way to deal with this special category of prisoners that doesn’t involve the suspect legality that Guantanamo Bay represents. It may be that Tom Watson will play a small part in the ending of Guantanamo Bay. Only time will tell.