(MintPress) – There are 166 prisoners who remain held unlawfully in Guantanamo Bay prison, a penal colony where inmates are routinely tortured and denied basic due process of law. U.S. senators discussed transferring prisoners and providing legal representation last week, a move supported by the Obama administration in 2008. Closing the facility, long a blight to human rights, has become a top priority of Amnesty International and rights organizations pushing for greater legal transparency and change.
On Dec. 10, millions across the globe will gather for peaceful protests to commemorate the 64th annual International Human Rights Day. The demonstration will be timely and poignant given the myriad oppressive regimes continuing to crack down on political opposition across much of the world. Despite focusing on the long-term economic ties with East Asia, the Obama administration has the political space to push for comprehensive human rights reform at home and in the Middle East, a region entering a new phase of political uprising in the ongoing Arab Spring.
International Human Rights Day
International Human Rights Day is celebrated in many countries on Dec. 10 to coincide with the anniversary of the United Nations (U.N.) adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The Declaration was adopted in 1948 in the wake of the Nazi Holocaust in Europe and the devastation wrought by World War II — a conflict that took 60 million lives.
As a result, European countries have celebrated the signing of the declaration by holding public demonstrations against fascism and nazism. However, other countries have used the day to draw attention to a localized set of ongoing human rights abuses.
“This is a moment when people all over the world pause to reflect on those being denied their rights. Whether being held in prison, denied religious rights or discriminated at work. It is a moment when people come together to talk about these issues,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International in a recent MintPress statement.
The goal, of course, is not merely to outline the problems, but to propose constructive alternatives. As the unquestioned hegemony in world affairs, the world still looks to the U.S. to set the tone and track of engagement with these issues.
Is there a positive US role?
However, U.S. engagement in so called “humanitarian interventions” outwardly designed to help beleaguered populations have a tragic history of disastrous consequences.
The U.S. involvement in Iraq in 2003-2011 should serve as an ample reminder that an intervention with intent to bring democracy to the beleaguered Iraqi people proved to be ineffective and damaging to the long-term regional stability. What was supposed to be a short incursion aimed at toppling the Baathist regime became a protracted occupation that ended with the deaths of well over 100,000 civilians and giving more power to al-Qaida in the region.
“The U.S. is an influential country in many regards. It is crucial that it uses that influence to advance human rights goals worldwide. Power relations around the world are shifting. But it has a duty to uphold its duty in the context of bilateral relations and multilateral institutions,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International in a recent MintPress statement.
Rather than promoting democracy and peace through military intervention, a strategy that has yet to yield the intended results, Amnesty International has limited the scope of its advocacy to an area where the U.S. can be an effective advocate for human rights reform, namely through the release of political prisoners illegally held just for holding a particular political belief.
Freeing political prisoners
One of the biggest areas that the U.S. can work positively is in the freeing of political prisoners at home and abroad. While larger international conflicts still loom, the U.S. has proven adept at freeing those imprisoned for unpopular viewpoints.
One salient example is Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s successful work toward the release of blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng. Fearing for his life, Guangcheng, a vocal anti-corruption activist, fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in April. Working with the Swiss, French and Chinese governments, the U.S. was able to secure his safe passage to the U.S., where he now resides as a political asylee.
Freeing political prisoners may seem like a myopic focus for the U.S. However, it is one of the few areas where the Obama administration has been able to take an active, assertive role in promoting human rights without carrying out a destructive military intervention.
This should inspire that Obama administration to work to free Nabeel Rajab, the director of Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Rajab has been persecuted for organizing and demonstrating in illegal gatherings, a charge that has landed him in prison for three years.
These “illegal gatherings” are the same work that community organizers perform in the U.S. Rajab’s work as an activist is a type of advocacy that promotes democracy and social justice for all Bahrainis, including the oppressed Shiite majority living under constant threat from a Sunni monarch.
Nossel notes that Amnesty International has declared Rajab a “prisoner of conscience” and has made advocating for his release a top priority going into 2013.
Although a cadre of moderates in Congress, headed by Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), have called for Rajab’s immediate release, actions by the Obama administration have undermined this goal.
Rajab’s appeals trials have been consistently postponed by unsympathetic courts, including, most recently, during last month’s appeals hearing. More than 3,000 activists have been jailed since the start of the Bahrain uprising in 2011.
Because Bahrain is an allied oil producing state with geostrategic importance in the Gulf, the Obama administration has continued to back the murderous Al-Khalifa dictatorship by selling arms to the Sunni monarchy. Despite witnessing the deaths of 100 innocent protesters, the U.S. sold a multi-million dollar weapons package to the ruling regime in May.
Conversely, the Obama administration has pushed for punitive sanctions against the brutal al-Assad regime in Syria. Although the Syrian Civil War is larger in scope, having consumed more than 40,000 lives, the action highlights an inconsistency in U.S. foreign policy as it applies to the promotion of freedom and human rights in the Arab world.
Those dictatorships that provide some strategic benefit to the U.S. — be it oil or security — are given free reign to deny citizens basic rights and freedoms. Those regimes with an unfavorable relationship suddenly draw the ire of the U.S. and NATO.
Such an inconsistency must end as the U.S. should be compelled to consistently promote human rights for oppressed people, regardless of the country in which they live.
Preventing an invasion in Syria
Unofficial intelligence reports on last week point to the possibility that Bashar Assad may be moving chemical weapons in what could be the most provocative move of the nearly two year conflict.
President Barack Obama hinted at the possibility of a U.S. invasion after the Syrian president reportedly moved chemical weapons.
“I want to make it absolutely clear to Assad and those under his command: The world is watching,” said Obama.
“The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable,” the president added.
This point was underscored by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who offered similar ominous warnings while on a visit to Prague. “I’m not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people.
“Suffice it to say we are planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur,” said Clinton.
Turkey, a NATO member and key U.S. ally in the region has been drawn into the fray as border clashes raise the prospect of an all out ground invasion.
There are 166 suspected terrorists who remain in custody, denied basic due process of law in a facility akin to a penal colony. What is worse, the prisoners are subject to daily, arbitrary torture that stands in contradiction to the Geneva Convention.
Despite ample evidence from human rights organizations decrying the lack of transparency and legal representation, elected representatives in Washington insisted on maintaining the illegal facility during debates last month.
“The American people don’t want to close Guantanamo Bay, which is an isolated military controlled facility, to bring these crazy bastards that want to kill us all,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
“Most Americans believe that the people at Guantanamo Bay are not some kind of burglar or bank robber. They are bent on our destruction,” added Graham.
However, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and the majority of the Democrat-controlled Senate opposed such a measure. “I want to oppose the ‘crazy bastards standard.’ I don’t really think that if we are going to have a crazy bastard standard that we shouldn’t have a right to trial by jury,” said Paul.
However, the bill passed at the end of last month, prohibiting the use of funds for the transfer or release of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, a clear affront to the rights of prisoners and to Cuba, a beleaguered country that has long decried an unjust U.S. presence on its island.
Only Khalid Sheikh Muhammad and a handful of terrorists with known connections to the Sept. 11 attacks have been found guilty of crimes. The vast majority have been held unlawfully for indefinite lengths of time without charge or due process of law.
The prison hinders Washington’s ability to be an effective broker and only fosters the expansion of anti-U.S. extremism. Simply closing the facility can only improve long-term U.S. security interests.
Additionally, an independent study released late last month shows that it is possible to close the prison and bring the detainees to the U.S. for legal imprisonment and trial. “This report demonstrates that if the political will exists, we could finally close Guantanamo without imperiling our national security,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
By working to close Guantanamo, President Obama can fulfill one of his original campaign promises in 2008 while also demonstrating genuine U.S. commitments to human rights and the rule of law.
“There needs to be a reflection and recalibration of human rights here at home. We hope that he will live up to the promises he campaigned on in 2008. Obama needs to close the Guantanamo Bay,” adds Nossel.