Twenty years ago, it would be a certain bet that few of us, outside of Cuban citizens, South American scholars, and the American military, could have pointed to Guantánamo Bay on a map of the world, much less have known that the US government had a lien on it, created more than a century earlier through the end of a war with Spain.
The advantage of Guantánamo, or ‘Gitmo’, was that it stood outside of US legal jurisdiction.
US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld said it was established to detain “extraordinarily dangerous people”; to interrogate them in “an optimal setting”, and implement prosecution for war crimes.
In the post-9/11 atmosphere, public opinion was prepared to tolerate a cessation of normal rules and conventions which attach to people suspected as enemy combatants.
This included a suspension, for practical purposes, of the Geneva Convention. It was at Guantánamo, where the first detainees arrived 20 years ago tomorrow, and in the appalling conditions of Abu Ghraib Prison west of Baghdad, where news of human rights abuses began to emerge in 2003, that the US lost the sense of moral legitimacy which had carried it through the destruction of fascism, and beyond the dangerous times of the Cold War. It has still to regain it.
Mohamedou Ould Slahi, whose story was told in the award-winning film The Mauritanian, was incarcerated in Camp Delta and Camp X-Ray before winning his release by moving for habeas corpus against the government of Barack Obama. He had been incarcerated for 14 years without charge or trial.
Although the US officially acknowledges holding 779 prisoners, the reality is that we will never know the true figure. One US diplomat said:
What I kept hearing in those days was ‘it’s a brand new world, the old rules don’t apply’. It turned out to be a horrible mistake.
At a judiciary committee meeting in December, senator Dick Durbin noted: “Every day it remains open is an affront to our system of justice and the rule of law. It is where due process goes to die.”
In the fragile times ahead, we will need the rule of law. In the 20 years of Guantánamo’s existence, only 12 detainees have been charged and only two have been convicted by military commissions. Those numbers tell their own story and provide a chilling historical drumbeat.