Thursday, March 09, 2006

Any way you look at it, we lose something

David Aaranovitch writes one of the sanest things I’ve read on Guantanamo. The whole article is well worth a read here.

The suspension of habeus corpus is grim enough. The orange boiler suits and the cages are a PR disaster on the world stage.

But 9/11 and then 7/7 gave our Governments an impossible dilemma: we demand that our security forces protect us from people who look like everybody else, but that they do so without being seen to suspect anybody who looks like everybody else.


martpol said...

Aaronovitch is right about the tendency to simplify Guantanamo, and right to question some commentators' 'need' for the prisoners to be innocent in order for their arguments to work.

But leaving aside other measures taken by our governments, Guantanamo still represents a clearly excessive suspension not just of habeas corpus but of human rights and international conventions. The most worrying aspect is that it is founded on a false principle, regularly espoused as if undeniable: that we are 'at war'.

The 'war on terror' is at best a catch-all phrase for describing things that governments in the 21st century should be doing anyway: stopping terrorists and putting pressure on other governments not to fund terrorism.

At worst, it is disingenuous to the point of doublespeak, allowing governments to add an acceptable veneer to otherwise unacceptable their foreign and military policies. Guantanamo is one example. Another is Israel/Palestine, in which Hamas (with their stated intent of destroying Israel) is fair game as a terrorist organisation, but terrorist actions committed by the Israeli government can be justified by reference to that same war on terror.

Brit said...

You summarise the dilemma in a nutshell:

Governments should be 'stopping terrorists'...but how? Terrorists don't walk around with 'terrorist' marked on their foreheads. They're normal-seeming people with normal jobs.

They might do suspicious things though, like go unexpectedly to extremist mosques in Afganistan...

You also overlook that Al Qaeda have blurred the definition of 'war'. As far as bin Laden is concerned (he's probably dead, mind), we're very much at war.

Oroborous said...

Orange jumpsuits are common at U.S. detention facilities, for obvious reasons, so the Gitmo prisoners aren't being treated any differently than American citizens in that regard.

As for the pen-like cells, those aren't used anymore. A new facility has been built.

The reason that we keep seeing the old one is that images of the new facility aren't allowed, so the old images are all that the media has.

Plus this, via BrosJudd:

Guantanamo better than Belgian prisons-OSCE expert
(Reuters, 3/06/06)

Inmates at Guantanamo Bay prison are treated better than in Belgian jails, an expert for Europe's biggest security organization said on Monday after a visit to the controversial U.S. detention center. [...]

"At the level of the detention facilities, it is a model prison, where people are better treated than in Belgian prisons," said [Alain Grignard, deputy head of Brussels' federal police anti-terrorism unit].

Brit said...

Fair enough.

Although it should be pointed out that the Belgian inmates have probably been charged and convicted for some sort of crime...

Oroborous said...

Since we could have just killed them all in Afghanistan, it would seem that being held indefinitely, but with some hope of future freedom, isn't a bad deal.

They aren't exactly being mistreated, and in fact America has a long history of pampering POWs. Many of the Germans held in America during WW II didn't want to leave once the war ended, and some said that they were better-treated as a POW than they were by the Germany military.

What if we just sentenced them all to twenty years for being terrorists ?
Would that be better, from a moral standpoint ?

As was revealed recently, many of the Gitmo prisoners had knowledge that shed light on the UK bombings, so it's clear that these aren't just innocent bystanders who were mistakenly swept up.

While there were some people meeting that description, they've long since been released.

In my view, the only problems with Gitmo are PR-related.
I don't see any ethical or legal problems with the detention that aren't related to legalisms that are purely abstract.

These people are clearly POWs, even if the Geneva Conventions don't recognize them as such.
The Geneva Conventions would have allowed us to summarily execute them as irregulars.

Does that strike anyone as a satisfactory state of affairs ?

Brit said...

There is no satisfactory state of affairs.

It does appear that some Britons were held and subjected to various degrees of torture for three years and then released without charge. That's not satisfactory by any standards.

But on the other hand, as Aaronovitch says, nobody knows - and no critics of Gitmo have said - what a satisfactory approach to Islamist terror actually looks like.

And we also don't know how many lives Guantanamo and other habeus corpus-suspension measures have saved. It might be a lot of lives - it might even include mine or yours or martpol's.

martpol said...


"You also overlook that Al Qaeda have blurred the definition of 'war'. As far as bin Laden is concerned (he's probably dead, mind), we're very much at war."

And it was ever thus. Terrorist organisations generally do consider themselves to be at war with governments or people: but because there is no war in the normal sense (i.e. declared conflict between two military sides), then they use violence against civilian as well as military targets in attempting to highlight their 'struggle'.

The IRA thought themselves to be at war with the British government and Irish loyalists, but our government didn't consider this to be a war. (Of course, there is a difference in that Al Qaeda's goals are less sane or achievable. But that gives an even better reason to avoid using the language of war. If we do so in the case of religious extremists, then we're likely to be 'at war' for decades, possibly forever.)


"These people are clearly POWs" perhaps, but comparisons with WWII treatment don't really stand up because of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (declared immediately post-war for reasons including the abuse of POWs).

And I don't agree that "it's clear that these aren't just innocent bystanders" - there's good evidence that that's just what some of the Guantanamo prisoners are, even if (as Aaronovitch's article points out) those people are guilty of being pretty stupid.

Brit said...

So the question remains: if your job was to protect the lives of your citizens, what would you do with a group of people who match the profile of Islamic terrorists, who for no good reason (the official excuse being 'stupidity') turn up in a hotbed of terrorist fundamentalism?

Criticising is one thing, but unless you have a better alternative solution, you're just complaining.

martpol said...

I'd ensure that they have access to all their normal legal rights, including a free and fair trial. And if the evidence wasn't there, I'd let them go (notwithstanding any surveillance measures which presumably take place in cases like these anyway). There just isn't a valid excuse for the lack of any legal proceedings in Guantanamo.

It's interesting that Saddam Hussein is currently on trial - someone who has almost certainly committed a long list of acts for which evidence gathering and witness testimony are extremely difficult; and this is in a country in complete turmoil with far less experience of providing fair trials than the USA.

Brit said...

So where would you get the information you need to prevent terrorist attacks?

Oroborous said...

Saddam is being allowed to stand trial because we know what the outcome is going to be.

If he were intelligent and/or sane, (and the best available evidence is that he is neither), he would refuse to present a defense.

It wouldn't save him from execution, but it would allow him to die with dignity.

I ask again, if America simply sentenced the Gitmo prisoners to twenty years confinement apiece, would that satisfy legal critics ?

No, because critics of Gitmo don't really want trials, they want the prisoners to be released.

What if we release all of the Gitmo prisoners to some nation that agrees to accept them, on the condition that if any of the prisoners are ever again involved in terrorism, or even combat, that the U.S. will consider that to be an act of war on the part of the host country ?

martpol said...

But 'imprison people without trial or release them' is a false choice. What serious critics want is a trial, and the normal procedure (freedom or suitable punishment) to apply thereafter.

If the US military authorities have evidence that these people are linked to terrorism (Brit's point about "information you need to prevent terrorist attacks"), then try them on the basis of that evidence. After all, people don't know the intimate details of terrorist cells without actually being involved in terrorism, so there's a good chance of conviction.

But if 'POWs' have been held for three or more years and still don't have the evidence to link them with terrorism or other 'war' crimes, then they aren't genuine POWs.

Brit said...

That's not my point about information.

Any given young, male Muslim Briton who turns up in a radical Afghanistan mosque without a plausible reason for being there, has a higher than average possibility of possessing information about Islamic terrorist activity in Britain, even if he hasn't actually committed a criminal act.

Again, the piece of the puzzle we're missing is public knowledge of how many lives Gitmo and similar detentions in the UK have saved.

And to quote Aaronovitch again: "... you may argue that we can afford to take the risk that a few bombers escape the net, in order to safeguard our legal integrity."

That is an argument, but it's an argument that's very easy for those who don't have any responsibility - US Democrats, Liberal Democrats, Guardian readers etc - to make. For Governments and security forces, life is not so simple.

martpol said...

Yet the lines which those governments draw - between protection of civilians and provision for human rights and the rule of law - are often arbitrary. An example is the '90 days detention' bill introduced by the British government; no international precedent existed for this (in the US, for instance, the legal limit for detention without charge is considerably shorter), yet our government continued to talk and act as if allowing anything less than 90 days would be giving in to terrorists.

Regardless, the question remains: what good can it do to detain prisoners at Guantanamo without trial? Is it expected that those prisoners will suddenly provide information that they've been withholding until now? Any victim of torture will tell you that the methods used there would already have yielded any useful information to be had.

Oroborous said...

Yeah, "torture"...

Standing all day, no dessert, O, the humanity !

In any case, not all of the Gitmo prisoners are being detained because they may have more info - some are being detained simply because American officials think that they'll go back to terrorism if released.

That's not a farfetched fear, given that some of the people released earlier from Gitmo already have done just that.

Brit said...


How long it takes to extract information/decide none is there to be extracted, is something that you and I don't have sufficient expertise to make judgements about.

In the case of these duffers, 3 years was obviously deemed sufficient by those that do have the expertise. The rest of us can only hope they've called it correctly.

Again, you simply can't claim that it makes no sense to hold suspects without trial while you lack that piece of the puzzle I mentioned above.

Hey Skipper said...


Those at Gitmo were captured during hostilities involving our military, not law enforcement agencies.

Even if all they were guilty of was being stupid (defined as desiring to be a jihadi), they qualify as enemy combatants. As Oroborous noted above, under the circumstances, our forces would have been completely justified in summarily executing the stupid.

The last I checked, there is absolutely no requirement for the US to release those who would very likely endeavor to pursue their jihadi goals at the earliest opportunity.