President Obama has signed an Executive Order to close the detention centers at the Naval Base known as Gitmo in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The Executive Order is a powerful tool. It basically says, I’m the President, and I’m going to do this thing.
The order spells out instructions regarding the resolution of the legal status of the remaining detainees, how they are to be treated and where they will be transferred should their legal status remain unresolved at the time when the detention center is closed. Specifically, the order states that the detainees are entitled to treatment under the Geneva Conventions. It also states that the detention facilities at Gitmo must be closed as soon as possible, but no later than 1 year after the Order. If there are still detainees there in 1 year, they will be released to their home country, a third country or transferred to another detention facility in the US.
There are also a slew of directions for the resolution of the remaining detainees, the determination of their prosecution, and consideration of issues relating to their transfer, humane standards of treatment and others.
Because the detention of enemy combatants in Gitmo became a symbol of the heavy handed and often illegal policies of the prior administration, the decision to resolve the remaining issues and shut it down has peaked my curiosity.
How is that the United States has a detention center in Cuba?
Gitmo is the oldest overseas Navy base we have. Even though we’ve been there over 100 years, the Cuban government insists we are there illegally. I had no idea that at one point in our history, the US controlled all of the island of Cuba. It was right after the Spanish American War. An American citizen became the first President of Cuba and offered the US a lease on the land where the Naval Base sits. We continue to pay the rent there to the Castro Government, even though the checks have never been cashed! It’s the only Naval base the US maintains in a Communist country.
The treaty that the US signed all those years ago was designed to allow the US to use the base for naval purposes only. It is believed that the treaty specifically excludes the US from using it as a prison or a location for military trials. However, the US did use it to house Haitian and Cuban refugees who were caught at sea trying to make it to the US.
It wasn’t until 2002 that the US started keeping prisoners there. These prisoners, labeled enemy combatants, were either captured by the military on the battlefield, or purchased from mercenaries. Legal battles have been ongoing over the last 6 years regarding the treatment and legal status of these prisoners. After several suicides of detainees, the American Red Cross, the UN and the EU all requested that the detention center be closed.
As detainees were released, they started doing interviews and telling the horror stories of their detention. They were tortured, beaten and threatened with death. Many, after being released, became militant and were involved in suicide bombings and other attacks against Iraqi soldiers, or the kidnapping of foreigners. These actions show that either we were really bad interrogators and released actual terrorists or we drove these previously non-militants to become terrorists.
Just as Gitmo became a poster child for everything wrong with the way the US pursued the War on Terror, closing it and properly resolving the issues of the remaining residents there will be symbolic of a different means to the same end.