A high-ranking United Nations official called for the closing of Guantanamo Bay today in one of the strongest statements issued by the U.N. in recent memory. Navi Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the prison camps must be shuttered and that they are in a "clear breach of international law."
The statement comes amid mounting pressure to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, due in part to an increasingly dire two-month hunger strike. As many as 130 of the 166 detainees are currently on hunger strike, according to defense attorneys, though the Pentagon puts the number at closer to 40. Eleven detainees are being fed through a tube that's snaked through their nostrils. Of those 11, at least three have been hospitalized for dehydration.
Pillay excoriated the Obama administration and Congress, saying, "The continuing indefinite incarceration of many of the detainees amounts to arbitrary detention." Of the 166 men still held at Guantanamo, 86 have been cleared for release by the Obama administration and relevant agencies. Some of those men had also previously been cleared by the Bush administration. That means, in no uncertain terms, that they have been detained unjustly, that they never posed a threat to the U.S., and they are extremely unlikely to pose a threat to the U.S. if released. Nine men have died at Guantanamo – four on Obama's watch – including most recently Adnan Latif, a Yemeni who had been repeatedly cleared for transfer.
"We must be clear about this," Pillay said in the statement. "The United States is in clear breach not just of its own commitments but also of international laws and standards that it is obliged to uphold." Pillay called for the immediate release of every detainee who has been cleared, and also said that if and when detainees are charged they should be tried in civilian court, not the alternate military commission system now in place at Guantanamo.
Around 50 of the cleared men are Yemeni, but after the failed "underwear bomber" plot in 2009, the Obama administration issued a moratorium on transferring prisoners to that country. The administration cited the tumultuous political climate, though critics have seen the move as a cynical ploy to score political points by appearing tough on terror. Now, the State Department office responsible for determining how to close Guantanamo Bay has itself been closed, and according to Vincent Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights, the administration can't "offer a single measure that is currently underway to draw down the prison's population and finally shutter Guantanamo."
Many of the defense attorneys representing the hunger strikers fear for their clients' lives. On Thursday evening, Carlos Warner, who represents 11 detainees, read a letter from one of his clients on Al Jazeera English. (I also appeared on the broadcast.) The letter described a lantern several of the men had made – "for those in the world who remember and pray for us during this time of suffering." Warner said reading it made him emotional because he thought it might be a goodbye letter.
Though liberals are quick to blame Republicans for their intransigence, there are measures the president could take without Congress' approval if he were serious about closing Guantanamo. Though the defense appropriations bill for 2013 bars using funds to transfer Guantanamo detainees, there is a way around that restriction. The Secretary of Defense can personally sign off on a detainee's release or transfer – which is exactly what groups like Human Rights Watch are calling for.
"After more than 10 years, the U.S. needs to either prosecute those detainees against whom it has any credible evidence or release them," Laura Pitter, counterterrorism advisor at Human Rights Watch, tells Rolling Stone.
Similarly, Chris Hayes on his MSNBC program Thursday night called for the immediate release of cleared detainees, saying they should be paid restitution and be granted legal residence within the United States.
"President Obama must reaffirm his promise to close Guantanamo by charging someone in his administration with this important task," says Warner, the defense attorney whose client made the lantern. "The world can no longer sit idly by while innocent men languish, wither and die in a prison that's devoid of all process and hope."