Guantanamo is still there … and the number of Guantanomos is multiplying.

by  • 29 January 2014

When it comes to dis­reg­arding human rights and in­ter­na­tional legal ob­lig­a­tions, Guantanamo is easily matched by the 400 mi­grant de­ten­tion centres across Europe.

Guantanamo's Camp 6 maximum-security detention facility.

Guantanamo’s Camp 6 maximum-​security de­ten­tion facility.

One of the reasons why President Obama’s man­date has fallen many miles short of ex­pect­a­tions is his clear lack of will — let’s dis­pense with eu­phem­isms — to de­liver his promise to close the six dif­ferent camps making up the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay. This is where pris­oners with links to the war against ter­rorism, primarily to Al-​Qaeda, have been held since the U.S. in­ter­ven­tion in Afghanistan, pris­oners sub­ject to dif­fering de­grees and types of co­er­cive measures.

For ex­ample, in the harshest camp, Camp 6, with ca­pa­city for 178 pris­oners, in­mates are held in win­dow­less in­di­vidual steel cells for 22 hours a day. It is common know­ledge that, over the years, re­ports and testi­monies have shown that in all of these camps, pris­oners who — from the stand­point of in­ter­na­tional law — are pris­oners of war (al­though the USdenies them that status, re­garding them as “il­legal enemy com­batants”) have been sub­jected to tor­ture and ill-​treatment. As the Red Cross and various other human rights NGOs have pointed out, this re­gime not only falls out­side the peri­meters of in­ter­na­tional leg­ality, it act­ively vi­ol­ates it.

The first group of 20 pris­oners ar­rived at the US base on 11 January 2002, under the man­date of President Bush. The pre­vailing legal situ­ation was one of a state of war which saw the sus­pen­sion of basic human rights guar­an­tees under the Patriot Act, ac­cording to re­ports from the American Civil Liberties Union, among others. At its peak, these camps held 750 pris­oners. Today, there are 151. During his first pres­id­en­tial cam­paign in 2008, Obama (and McCain, too) prom­ised to close the camps if they were elected to of­fice. In January 2009, Obama ordered the closure of Guantanamo for one year, how­ever in 2009 and 2010 the Congress ve­toed the use of public funds to transfer in­mates from Guantanamo to US soil.

There has been only one civil trial of a Guantanamo pris­oner: the Tanzanian na­tional Ahmed Ghailani was ac­quitted of 284 of the 285 charges laid against him, in­cluding ter­rorism, but was con­victed of con­spiring to des­troy U.S. prop­erty with ex­plos­ives. Only 67 pris­oners have been ex­tra­dited to some of the 16 coun­tries that have agreed to ac­cept them. The legal twists and turns en­gen­dering the denial of basic prin­ciples are ex­amined by Richard Wilson, Professor at the Center for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law of the American University’s Washington College of Law, in his art­icle en­titled “Defending the Detainees at Guantanamo Bay1. For those who are in­ter­ested, a de­tailed chro­no­logy and doc­u­ment­a­tion can be found on the New York Times’ web­site ded­ic­ated to the Guantanamo camps and on the web­site of the Center for Justice and International Law, Washington.

To mark this sad an­niversary, I will refer to just a few of the most re­cent mile­stones in this shameful his­tory from 2013.

It should be re­called that in April 2013, in re­sponse to a ques­tion from a CBS cor­res­pondent during an of­fi­cial press con­fer­ence at the White House, President Obama de­clared that “Guantanamo is not ne­ces­sary” and went on to re­af­firm his in­ten­tion to close it, al­though he re­gretted the obstacles erected by Congress.

In June 2013, for the first time, a list was pub­lished of 46 pris­oners (in­cluding Mahmoud Al Mujahid) who are being held in­def­in­itely, without charges, without trial, under the pre­text that they are too dan­gerous to be re­leased, even though there is no evid­ence to bring them to trial(?!).

In November 2013, after the sharp in­crease in the number of Guantanamo pris­oners on hunger strike, 25 NGOs urged Obama to close the fa­cility. Shortly there­after, during the same month, Obama pub­licly re­stated his “de­cision” to close the camps and transfer the pris­oners to the U.S. and to third coun­tries after meeting with two spe­cial en­voys from the State Department (Clifford Sloan) and the Pentagon (Paul Lewis).

The an­nounce­ment that pris­oners could be sent to third coun­tries is par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial as many of these trans­fers — por­trayed as re­pat­ri­ations — are ef­fected against the will of the pris­oners in­volved (as in the case of Djamel Ameziane and Belkacem Bensayah, who were trans­ferred to Algeria against their will on 6 December 2013; Saudi Arabian and Somali pris­oners have also been re­pat­ri­ated in identical cir­cum­stances). But what’s even worse is that some in­mates have been trans­ferred to prisons in third coun­tries without their con­sent, as in the case of three of the el­even Chinese pris­oners of Uyghur eth­ni­city who were sent to Slovakia on 10 January 2014. As of today’s date, 15 January 2014, the camps still exist.

But closing Guantanamo will not bring an end to this hell, and I use the word “hell” be­cause it is not a kind of limbo, it is far worse than a simple lack of con­trol over the basic prin­ciples of the rule of law. According to Zachary Katznelson, senior counsel at the NGO Reprieve, which has de­fended thirty Guantanamo pris­oners, the U.S. is holding over 16000 in­di­viduals pris­oner in jails throughout the world e.g. Iraq, Afghanistan — the in­famous Bagram prison — and Turkey.2

Camps in Europe 2011. Source: Migreurop. Click to Enlarge.

We in Europe have nothing to brag about when it comes to this shameful situ­ation. With the sole ex­cep­tion of Chancellor Merkel during her first of­fi­cial visit to the U.S., not one European leader (in­cluding re­cently President Rajoy) has con­demned this un­ac­cept­able state of af­fairs be­fore the U.S. au­thor­ities. Besides par­ti­cip­ating in this dis­grace (and cer­tainly not just by omis­sion), the EU has its own Guantanamos. Because when it comes to dis­reg­arding human rights and in­ter­na­tional legal ob­lig­a­tions, Guantanamo is easily matched by the 400 mi­grant de­ten­tion centres theEU op­er­ates in its 28 Member States, in can­didate coun­tries, in coun­tries that enjoy the ad­vant­ages of the neigh­bour­hood policy and in coun­tries that purely and simply trade in such misery. This situ­ation has been amply re­ported and doc­u­mented by Migreurop, the most im­portant NGOin the EU in terms of asylum and im­mig­ra­tion policy. Migreurop was cre­ated at the end of 2000, at the European Social Forum held in Florence, as a European net­work to con­demn “the Europe of camps”, an ex­pres­sion used quite in­ten­tion­ally to un­der­score the ana­logy with the most ter­rible ex­per­i­ences of con­cen­tra­tion camps, such as the Argelés camps, im­possible to erase from the memories of Spanish republicans.

Over the past decade, Migreurop has de­veloped and im­ple­mented re­search pro­jects, grass­roots ini­ti­at­ives and con­structive pro­posals in this field. Examples of these in­clude its 2011 Open Access Now cam­paign, in which it called for trans­par­ency and ac­cess to mi­grant de­ten­tion centres in the EU and the pro­ject on the dy­namic map­ping of mi­grant de­ten­tions, linked to the AntiAtlas of Borders Project. The work of this NGO cul­min­ated in the Close the Camps ini­ti­ative, which was launched in 2011 and was presented in December 2013 in the con­text of the European Campaigns against the Administrative Detention of Migrants, forming part of European Alternatives (EA Migration Area/​EA Detention Programme). The ini­ti­ative couples ana­lysis with a con­structive pro­posal, as its in­ten­tion is to draw up a map of the 393 de­ten­tion camps — known as centros de in­ternami­ento in Spanish legal ter­min­o­logy. In turn, this map seeks to high­light the key im­port­ance of these centres as part of a policy of genuine war against im­mig­rants (in this re­gard, see Migreurop’s sym­bolic Manifesto). The al­most 400 camps cover centres op­er­ating in the 28 Member States of the EU, in can­didate coun­tries, in those forming part of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and in other coun­tries that par­ti­cipate in these policies. Let’s close these mi­grant de­ten­tion camps. Let’s close Guantanamo and all those like it in 2014. This time there are no excuses.

Javier de Lucas is Pro­fessor of Philo­sophy of Law and Polit­ical Philo­sophy at the Human Rights Insti­tute, Uni­ver­sity of Valencia.


  1. Human Rights Brief, volume 12, issue 3 (2005) 
  2. Further in­form­a­tion can also be found in the book of con­ver­sa­tions edited by Nadim Mahjoub en­titled “The Guantanamo Files: The Stories of 744 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison”, Pluto Press, 2009, which in­cludes testi­monies from Andy Worthington, Moazzam Beg and Zachary Katznelson. 

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