The U.S. government took its first prisoners to Guantánamo Bay 12 years ago today.
In the 4,380 days since, we have seen indefinite detention without formal charge or trial, the use of torture and other abusive treatment, and unlawful and inherently unfair military commission proceedings. Now home to 155 men, the detention camp has for 12 years violated both the basic rights of its captives, and our American values.
But there is cause for hope that we may someday soon stop counting the days of injustice and abuse at Guantánamo.
Last month, the president signed into law the Fiscal Year 2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which loosens restrictions on transfers of detainees from Guantánamo. These measures represent the first legislation ever passed by Congress to facilitate – rather than impede – the closure of the detention facility. Specifically, the provisions in the NDAA replace an unnecessarily cumbersome process for transferring abroad detainees from Guantanamo with a more sensible, factor-based standard designed to mitigate any risks related to transfer. With these measures in place, the administration may more easily move forward with transfers of the vast majority of men at Guantánamo who have never been charged with a crime.
The new foreign transfer provisions follow a renewed commitment by the Obama administration to close the prison. That commitment is in large part a result of a months-long hunger strike Guantánamo detainees conducted as a desperate protest against their indefinite detention. In response, the president reasserted his commitment to close the prison in a speech last May at the National Defense University. He appointed new envoys at the Department of Defense and Department of State who are responsible for overseeing the closure of Guantánamo. Since those appointments, the population at Guantánamo has shrunk at a faster rate faster than any time since 2010. Even under the more restrictive foreign transfer language in the FY2013 NDAA, nine detainees were transferred from the island prison in December. For purposes of comparison, consider that only three detainees were transferred in all of 2012, and only one in 2011.
Still, significant work remains to be done by Congress and the administration to ultimately close the detention facility and put an end to the practice of indefinite detention by the U.S. government.
The foreign transfer provisions in the FY14 NDAA do not affect the unconstitutional and broken military commissions system, in which six men are presently being tried. Still intact in the recent defense authorization bill is the prohibition against detainee transfers to the United States, even for trial. Though federal criminal courts have successfully completed terrorism-related prosecutions for more than 500 defendants since the September 2001 terror attacks, the government continues to rely on the flawed and extremely costly military commissions system at Guantánamo. To date, the military commissions have cost the American taxpayer some $600 million while delivering seven convictions. Two of these convictions have been reversed and the majority was arranged through plea bargains.
Meanwhile, the Periodic Review Board process announced by President Obama in 2011 and only first initiated this past summer is slowly moving forward. Just this week, the first case of approximately 70 up for review was successfully completed.
All these developments provide strong reason to believe that the tide is turning at Guantánamo Bay. Just last week, State Department Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure Cliff Sloan told PBS that he is convinced that Guantánamo will close with Congressional support and intensified administration action.
As that day draws nearer, the administration must ensure that detainee transfers abroad are carried out swiftly and with regard to detainees’ welfare. And the administration and Congress must continue to work together so that we may finally stop counting the days at Guantánamo.