UN Human Rights Commissioner Criticizes Obama for Failure to Close Guantánamo


On Monday, marking the third anniversary of President Obama’s failed promise to close the “war on terror” prison at Guantánamo within a year, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed what a UN news release described as “deep disappointment” that the Obama administration had failed to close Guantánamo and had, instead, “entrenched a system of arbitrary detention.”  She also said she was “disturbed at the failure to ensure accountability for serious human rights violations, including torture,” that took place at Guantánamo.

In her exact words, Navi Pillay said:

It is ten years since the US Government opened the prison at Guantánamo, and now three years since 22 January 2009, when the President ordered its closure within twelve months. Yet the facility continues to exist and individuals remain arbitrarily detained — indefinitely — in clear breach of international law.

I was encouraged by the mention of arbitrary detention, as I have been attempting, for over a year, to ascertain when it would be appropriate to describe the prisoners as being subjected to arbitrary detention, given that they remain held, whether or not they have been cleared for release. 89 of the remaining 171 prisoners were cleared for release at least two years ago by an interagency Task Force established by President Obama, but they remain held, because of hysteria regarding the security situation in Yemen, and because of Congressional obstruction. Now, perhaps, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will be able to exert pressure on the administration, by requesting a visit to the prison.

Navi Pillay also discussed the recently passed National Defense Authorization Act, with its disgraceful requirement for the mandatory military custody, without charge or trial, of anyone who can be described as having a connection to al-Qaeda. As she explained:

To make matters worse, the new National Defense Authorization Act, signed into law in December 2011, now effectively codifies such indefinite military detention without charge or trial. This piece of legislation contravenes some of the most fundamental tenets of justice and human rights, namely the right to a fair trial and the right not to be arbitrarily detained. Nobody should ever be held for years on end without being tried and convicted, or released.

The High Commissioner took note of President Obama’s commitment to interpret relevant sections of the National Defense Authorization Act “in a manner that ensures that any detention it authorizes complies with the Constitution, the laws of war, and all other applicable law,” which he noted when he signed the NDAA into law, but added:

While fully recognizing the right and duty of states to protect their people and territory from terrorist acts, I remind all branches of the US Government of their obligation under international human rights law to ensure that individuals deprived of their liberty can have the lawfulness of their detention reviewed before a court. Where credible evidence exists against Guantánamo detainees, they should be charged and prosecuted. Otherwise, they must be released.

Turning to accountability for torture, Navi Pillay explained that international law requires “thorough and systematic investigation of all allegations of serious human rights violations, including torture, that allegedly took place at Guantánamo Bay,” adding, “Every effort must be made to hold to account those responsible for the development, approval or implementation of coercive interrogation methods analogous to torture under international law. Individuals found to have perpetrated, ordered, tolerated or condoned torture and ill-treatment should be brought to justice.”

The High Commissioner also urged the Obama administration “to ensure that conditions of detention comply fully with human rights standards under international law,” explaining that “she was disturbed by the Government’s failure to allow independent human rights monitoring of the detention conditions at Guantánamo.” This is a long-standing complaint, and it highlights how Guantánamo remains a facility that, even under President Obama, is regarded, with complete justification, as an exception to the normal rules of detention.

In conclusion, she stated:

I urge the US Congress to take steps to enable the US Administration to close the Guantánamo Bay detention centre — as it stated it wished to do — in compliance with the Government’s obligations under international human rights law, and in so doing, to fully respect the principle of non-refoulement, under which no one should be sent back to a country where they may face torture.”

Ten years after Guantánamo opened, and three years after President Obama took office, it is depressing that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has to remind the US of its obligations, and to point out that the current situation is one in which the prisoners are held in arbitrary detention. I wish I could say that Congress and the Obama administration will be shamed into doing something about, but unfortunately it is unclear that anyone regards it as a pressing enough shame to take steps to bring the prison’s existence to an end once and for all.

Note: Please visit the website of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and sign up to join a growing body of people demanding that President Obama fulfill his unfulfilled promise to close the prison. Please also sign a new White House petition on the “We the People” website calling for the closure of Guantánamo. 25,000 signatures are needed by February 6 to secure a response from the President.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

10 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, David V Barrett wrote:

    Andy, if a UN group were to criticise the USA on a matter of human rights/security/detention/rendition/torture/etc it would just give the Teabags and other far-right Republicans another excuse to complain about how America is handing over its sovereignty to the UN.
    If anyone tries to shame the USA on its human rights record in any area the rednecks will just become more blustering.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    That may be true pragmatically, David, but surely that’s no reason not to point out that what’s taking place is arbitrary detention. Silence in the face of injustice is what’s allowed the US’s institutional crimes of the last ten years to take place.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    David V Barrett wrote:

    Agreed. I wasn’t meaning that the UN shouldn’t criticise the USA — just what the outcome would be from the religious right.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Dave Colding wrote:

    The guantanamo files rock.Thank you very much andy!!!!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    It appears to be a no-win situation, David, doesn’t it? It’s why those of us concerned with justice have begun to feel like we’re repeatedly banging out heads against a wall.
    And Dave, thanks for the supportive words. They’re very much appreciated.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Zilma Nunes wrote:

    i signed the petition but so many people has afraid to do it …
    a lot of strange and bad things happens in the world …Human Rights are not respected in anywhere in the world. I think this is an Utopian subject. So many immigrants in the USA, France for example are suffering because of this. THIS IS THE NEW ORDER…The extension of an ancient order become stronger and it seems normal for many people. I had so many problems in my country. Drugs, pedophile, prostitution seems normal in Brazil too…Good luck Andy..

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Zilma. Very good to hear from you.

  8. » Nine Circles of Hell!: Sunday Edition! / This Is Hell! says...

    […] Andy Worthington, “UN Human Rights Commissioner Criticizes Obama for Failure to Close Guantánamo” […]

  9. Sulanga says...

    UN will never reprimand USA. They cant afford to lose their financial contributions.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    They have been critical, although I do understand your comment about funding. However, just two years ago, a UN report was published, which I worked on extensively, and which analyzed in depth the extent of the US secret detention program after 9/11: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2010/06/15/un-secret-detention-report-part-one-the-cias-high-value-detainee-program-and-secret-prisons/

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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