A Guantanamo detainee’s feet are shown in this April 27, 2010 file photo. (POOL/REUTERS )
Diane Randall is the executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a 70-year-old Quaker lobby in the public interest.
If President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress want to act immediately to bolster the flagging faith among the international community and among much-needed allies in the Arab World, there is one policy lever that could help: Guantanamo Bay.
Speaking as the head of a Quaker faith lobby in Washington DC, and as someone who just returned, this month, from the protested and politically active streets of Istanbul, I can attest to the urgency of this moment.
From Istanbul to Sana’a, from Beirut to Baghdad, and from Cairo to Kabul, the protests are becoming more common, calls for reform more frequent, and disregard for America’s role in the region more apparent.
Whatever moral authority America once commanded continues to wither as we violate our country’s cherished values of human rights and the rule of law with the continued operation of Guantanamo.
There, at Guantanamo, 166 detainees live in captivity; over 80 of those men have been on a hunger strike, many being force-fed against their will. Over half of the total detainees have been cleared of charges and await release. The world watches our government’s inaction to address this injustice.
Additionally, and in violation of international law prohibitions against “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment,” several dozen inmates who remain on hunger strike are being force fed. After being physically immobilized, a two-foot long nasal tube is lodged into their bodies. The process ruptures the protective lining of their throats and stomachs and ruptures any sense of dignity, causing injury to body and soul.
The harm to these detainees is awful in the very action, but the fact that America — which considers itself the standard bearer for freedom and justice — is allowing this wound to fester harms our nation’s effectiveness with nations around the globe.
This Pentagon malpractice is fueling, quite fast and furiously, anti-American sentiment abroad. And while Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) have called for the Pentagon to end force feedings and implement the same prisoner protections currently in place at federal prisons, the world isn’t seeing the nuance among America’s leadership.
Beyond the absolute illegality and the severe human rights implications here, the message America is sending to leaders in Yemen, Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya is one that encourages the contravening of the rule of law, criminal justice, and due process in a court.
This is hardly the message we want to send to leaders who may be keen to excuse a similar flouting of democratic governance and principles in their countries. This is especially poignant for a president who made a campaign promise to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.
If America cannot keep its promises, how can we expect others, such as Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai, or Iraq’s Nur al-Maliki, to keep theirs?
Despite President Obama’s recent re-focus on Guantanamo, which has garnered little in terms of a new tack, it is up to Congress to legally lift the restrictions on moving detainees to prisons in the U.S. or to foreign countries. While Obama could veto any forthcoming National Defense Authorization Act, if it includes those restrictions, that move is highly unlikely since Guantanamo is such a small portion of the defense-funding bill.
The real task, then, lies in the moral argument that must be made by our leaders and by the American people. We live in a country that believes in the rule of law. Yet, in practice, we are operating in direct, deplorable contradiction with this ethos through our continued and indefinite detention and treatment of persons who have not been charged and should have been released years ago from Guantanamo Bay.
As U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler reminded us, last week, that she has no jurisdiction to end the force-feeding of a Guantanamo inmate held for 11 years despite but cleared for release in 2010, we need to make the moral imperative for overriding this injustice.
As people of faith, Quakers and many others believe there is that of God in everyone, which leads us to raise the moral imperative for dignity and justice. As citizens of a country established on the principles of liberty and justice, we call on our Congress to stand for the principles of our American Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Our country will be better for closing Guantanamo.
The time is now for America to stand for justice, for human dignity, for morality.