A Criminal Enterprise

Guantanamo Detainees Flounder as Europe Averts its Gaze

Posted in News by Sophie Cull on January 12, 2010

Being committed to your values is easier said than done. I am all for being green, but when the supermarket charges for recycled shopping bags, I’m tempted to stick with plastic. My decision to work in an anti-death penalty law office in the South was solely driven by my commitment to the abolition of the death penalty. But when I encounter a case involving a horrific crime, I find it hard to imagine the task of attorneys in my office who must dedicate themselves to representing the one who perpetrated it. In the case of capital punishment, though, a defense attorney’s queasiness at their client’s crime is easily reconciled with their queasiness at the state’s desired penalty – in both cases, the taking of life is abhorrent. But what happens when our commitment to our values leads us down an undesirable path with unsettling consequences?

It is eight years today since Guantanamo Bay was first used as a detention center for suspected terrorists. At present, 200 prisoners remain in Guantanamo – the vast majority of whom have never been charged. On this anniversary, it is tempting to point the finger at the United States and ask why Obama’s call for a speedy closure of the facility is taking such a long time. But Amnesty International is asking a different question.  What happened to Europe?

On 16 June 2009, the EU-US Joint Statement on the Closure of Guantanamo Bay was issued which expressed the readiness of some EU Member States to receive former detainees on a case-by-case basis. Amnesty purports that while some European states are volunteering to take in Guantanamo detainees, a number of those states that once fiercely argued for the closure of Guantanamo Bay are now disappointingly silent.

Many European governments have condemned the ongoing detention of prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. Now they can do something about it… Actions really do speak louder than words in this case; it’s time to turn the rhetoric into reality and get Guantánamo closed as soon as possible” said Clive Stafford Smith, Director of Reprieve.

Both Amnesty and Human Rights Watch state that other countries must take in detainees that will be tortured, subjected to further detention without charge and other human rights abuses should they be involuntarily repatriated to their country of origin. But nearly seven months since the EU-US statement was issued, only seven former detainees have been accepted by Europe as free men – 50 more await help.

If the worldwide refugee crisis has shown us nothing else, it is that when it comes to international human rights, actions cost much more than words. It is not difficult to see why governments would rather not take in Guantanamo detainees, but their inaction means these men will likely be relocated to once again be held without charge, only this time in a less visible setting.

At the root of the idea of ‘human rights’ is the idea that universal rights should be afforded to all people no matter which state they belong to. The ideal is universal; therefore the burden is international. Those states which once called for the closure of Guantanamo Bay may now realize their objective, but only if they are prepared to back their words with action. Henry David Thoreau’s quote serves as a useful check for us self-righteous moralists whose eyes quickly divert from the paper bag to the plastic when we think no one is looking: “Aim above morality. Be not simply good; be good for something.”