President Barack Obama’s recent national defense speech has been lauded in many corners as a bold and pivotal step forward. In his speech, he reiterated his ambition to close Guantánamo Bay, reminding everyone of the promise he infamously made four years ago, during the early stages of his presidency. Some may view the president’s invocation of Guantánamo as something encouraging and positive. However, that view marginalizes and ignores the gross injustices that have occurred, and continue to occur, at the prison to this day.
It is no coincidence that Guantánamo has come up again as an issue for the president while there is a severe hunger strike by a growing number of prisoners. The exact cause of the strike is unknown but reports have surfaced of Koran abuse by the guards and an incident where hardened rubber pellets were fired indiscriminately at crowds of prisoners. Regulations have been put in place making it harder for prisoners to meet their lawyers. Medical staff has resorted to brutal force-feeding techniques.
The hunger strike has also been considered a last-ditch effort by prisoners — many of whom should not be held in Guantánamo — to receive public attention for their plight.
According to a task force of top U.S. senior intelligence and security figures assembled by Obama himself, 86 of 166 prisoners have been cleared for release. Others, like the British national Shaker Aamer, who has spent over 11 years in the prison, have never been charged. In the brutal and horrible history of the prison, this inaction is amongst the largest violations of international human rights and law.
Obama blames Congress for his inability to close the prison. And in part, he is justified. Congress has made it difficult to make any moves on Guantánamo, as it has effectively suspended funding. However, the Obama administration has shown little initiative to try any options. For example, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has the ability to approve transfers of prisoners under the National Defense Authorization Act, but has never hinted at doing so. In my research, there has not been a dedicated staff or commission to work on closure or negotiations in Congress. Overall, Obama has followed a commonly-used political approach – lack of accountability or leadership aside from chiding his adversaries – on an issue he claims to strongly believe in.
The time has passed for rhetoric and for pressuring Congress via public statements. We have seen how ineffective this has been on many issues, including ones very poignant and personal to the public such as gun reform. If the president really wants to close Guantánamo, he needs to push the process forward unilaterally, or through Secretary Hagel. There will obviously be strident opposition, but that has been the case for the majority of issues the president has proposed.
Human rights and international law are always worth the fight, not to mention their importance to national security interests. The United States is critical of other countries’ human rights violations and support of dangerous regimes and Obama, himself, has discussed the possibility that more terrorist groups have formed abroad because the prison is still open.
Guantánamo and much of the horror and shame associated with it may not have started on Obama’s watch, but his inaction and failure to make progress in any way will leave a stain on his legacy just as it has on his predecessors. And more important to consider is the future for many prisoners who are trapped in a situation “worse than being on death row,” as one of their lawyers has stated. There are those that believe if Obama cannot get this done, then likely no one ever will.
Shamir Tanna is a contributing columnist and NYU alumnus. Email him at email@example.com.