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Forever prison?

Defying custom and law, the American war in Afghanistan broke through norms like a battering ram through a gossamer wall. Guantánamo was created in just that context, a one-of-a-kind institution for this country. Now, so many years later, it’s poised to break through yet another norm.

Usually, at the end of hostilities, battlefield detainees are let go. As Geneva Convention III, the law governing the detention and treatment of prisoners of war, asserts: “Prisoners of war shall be released and repatriated without delay after the cessation of active hostilities.”

That custom of releasing prisoners has, in practice, pertained not only to those held on or near the battlefield but even to those detained far from the conflict. Before the Geneva Conventions were created, the custom of releasing such prisoners was already in place in the United States. Notably, during World War II, the US held 425,000 mostly German prisoners in more than 500 camps in this country. When the war ended, however, they were released and the vast majority of them were returned to their home countries.

When it comes to the closure of Guantánamo, however, we can’t count on such an ending. Two war-on-terror realities stand in the way of linking the coming end of hostilities in Afghanistan to the shutting down of that prison. First, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that Congress passed right after the 9/11 attacks was not geographically defined or limited to the war in Afghanistan. It focused on but was not confined to two groups, the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as well as anyone else who had contributed to the attacks of 9/11. As such, it was used as well to authorize military engagements – and the capture of prisoners – outside Afghanistan. Since 2001, in fact, it has been cited to authorize the use of force in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. Of the 780 prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay at one time or another, more than a third came from Afghanistan; the remaining two-thirds were from 48 other countries.

A second potential loophole exists when it comes to the release of prisoners as that war ends. The administration of George W Bush rejected the very notion that those held at Guantánamo were prisoners of war, no matter how or where they had been captured. As non-state actors, according to that administration, they were exempted from prisoner of war status, which is why they were deliberately labeled ‘detainees’.

Little wonder then that, despite Secretary of Defense Austin’s position on Guantánamo, as the New York Times recently reported, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby “argued that there was no direct link between its future and the coming end to what he called the ‘mission’ in Afghanistan.”

In fact, even if that congressional authorization for war and the opening of Guantánamo on which it was based never were solely linked to the conflict in Afghanistan, it’s time, almost two decades later, to put an end to that quagmire of a prison camp and the staggering exceptions that it’s woven into this country’s laws and norms since 2002.

Excerpted: ‘Will Guantánamo Ever Be Shut Down?’

Counterpunch.org