Last week, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the United Nations special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, released a scathing report on her visit to the Guantánamo Bay detention camp. The report, the first of its kind, once again brought the world’s attention to the profound, far-reaching impact that the use of torture and arbitrary detention by the United States has had not just on the minds and bodies of former and current detainees, but also on the victims and survivors of 9/11, their families and families of detainees.
On the same day, President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken marked the UN’s “International Day in Support of Victims of Torture” by releasing statements condemning torture and emphasizing the importance of upholding human rights and accountability. As the U.S. urges other countries to put an end to torture and provide redress to victims, the new UN report is a glaring reminder that the U.S. must meet its international obligations to do the same.
The Biden administration is the first to allow a UN expert to visit Guantánamo, demonstrating commitment to its promise of closing Guantánamo and to international human rights. While it’s a good first step, it’s not enough. According to the special rapporteur, the current condition at the site “without doubt, amounts to ongoing cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment … and may also meet the legal threshold for torture.”
The grim fact is that indefinite detention and “systematic arbitrariness” remain a reality at Guantánamo and beyond. The Bush administration’s choice to commit gross human rights violations — and of successive administrations before to not reckon with the past — has cast a long shadow, resulting in a situation where current and former detainees have been stripped of their most fundamental human rights and are forced to confront an ever-shifting and unpredictable reality that causes continued psychological harm.
The report by the UN special rapporteur provides a valuable roadmap for addressing the longstanding concerns surrounding Guantánamo and torture. It emphasizes the need for transparency, accountability and adherence to international human rights standards, but more importantly, calls for the closure of Guantánamo altogether.
Today, a finite group of 30 detainees remain, 16 of whom are cleared for transfer. They must be transferred immediately, and the Biden administration must swiftly resolve the cases of those who remain in the failed military commission system.
In his statement, Biden said, “torture destroys lives, families, and communities,” and followed with examples of heinous methods of torture perpetrated by Russia and Syria. The sad truth is that until 14 years ago, when President Barack Obama issued an executive order ending torture as an interrogation method, “Russia” and “Syria” could have been replaced with the “U.S.” throughout the statement and it would remain factual. That is evident in the special rapporteur’s report — from the torture methods she notes to the ongoing arbitrary detention and inhumane conditions imposed on detainees by the U.S. after 9/11.
As the UN report notes, torture perpetrated by the U.S. in the name of victims of 9/11 was a betrayal of their rights as victims of terrorism. In fact, 9/11 families have been denied accountability and justice for their loss and suffering for more than two decades because of the role of torture in tainting the military commissions’ tribunals at Guantánamo. As former chief defense counsel Brig. Gen. John Baker said in a statement to the Senate Judiciary Committee almost two years ago, “At the heart of the commissions’ problems is their original sin, torture. … From the beginning, justice was an afterthought.”
The ongoing failure to comprehensively address that original sin has broken lives and devastated the families of both victims of terrorism and victims of torture.
In 2021, President Biden said, “Torture goes against everything we stand for as a nation, and we must never again resort to its use.” Yet, the government’s response to the special rapporteur blatantly disregards the reality, in particular the long documented deficiencies in medical care, which include broken and inadequate equipment, lack of medical staff, and medical histories devoid of past torture and trauma, among others.
Earlier this year, seven UN experts and the International Committee of the Red Cross also raised concerns about the “systematic shortcomings in medical expertise, equipment, treatment and accommodations” at Guantanamo. As the special rapporteur pointed out — access to counsel, communication with families and standard operating procedures are also impacted by the arbitrary nature of the detention regime. Rather than acknowledging and addressing the gaps that exist, administration after administration continues to defend and sustain human rights violations. The U.S. government is being given good counsel by the UN expert, and it is past time that they begin to follow it.
Special Rapporteur Ní Aoláin also called on the U.S. to fulfill its obligations to investigate and prosecute allegations of torture, noting there is “No statute of limitations for torture. Anyone who undertook it, facilitated it, legally authorized it, hid it, sustained it remains liable for torture … for the entirety of their lives.”
While most of us won’t hold our breath that those responsible for torture will be prosecuted, the government can and must provide forms of redress immediately. The Biden administration didn’t open Guantánamo, but it can close it. They must finish the job, rather than continue to delay and continue to sustain the judgment and mockery of the world.
The U.S. government owes a formal apology, reparations, and support to the people who they tortured, as well as their families, and they must begin addressing the long-term impacts of these abuses.
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