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This Week in the Americas
Most major public figures and even the U.S. Supreme Court have acknowledged the strength of the argument for closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay. Many including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and former Secretary of State Colin Powell have come out in favor of the closure, and civil society groups have stepped up protests as evidence of human rights violations increases. Throughout the world the Guantanamo—the name of a bay on Cuba’s southeast coast—has become synonymous with the practices of torture and illegal detention that have come to characterize the "War on Terror."
The presence of a prison at Guantanamo in itself violates basic international relations principles. Guantanamo occupation by the U.S. military violates the 1903 and 1934 treaties between the United States and Cuba. A 1903 Agreement on Coaling and Naval Stations gave the United States the right to use Guantanamo Bay "exclusively as coaling or naval stations, and for no other purpose." A revised 1934 treaty maintained U.S. control over Guantanamo Bay in perpetuity until the United States abandons it or until both Cuba and the United States agree to modify the treaty. Nowhere in either treaty did Cuba give the United States the right to utilize Guantanamo Bay as a prison camp.
In May 2006 President George Bush stated for the first time that he would like to close the facility at Guantanamo. Belatedly and half-heartedly, Bush joined a growing list of world leaders who had condemned the base, including some of his closest allies—British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German Chancellor Angela Merkel—but unfortunately he did not move to actually shutting down the controversial prison. At that time Bush stated that it was up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the detainees there should be brought before civilian courts or military commissions. Now that the military commissions have begun, it seems they will be used to justify the continued use of the base.
Distance Grows Between Guantanamo and Geneva
Defenders of the base use political jargon to avoid compliance with the international conventions, calling detainees "enemy combatants" instead of prisoners of war. When confronted with accusations of torture in Guantanamo, the State Department has argued that U.S. treatment of detainees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo falls outside the UN Convention Against Torture1 because it was "never intended to apply to armed conflicts."
Human rights and international observers have not been allowed access to investigate the conditions and treatment of detainees. Refusing to comply with the Geneva Conventions and the UN Convention Against Torture sets a dangerous precedent, and opens the possibility that other nations will decide to ignore their treaty obligations.
If it is so clear at this point that holding an estimated 440 inmates in Guantanamo is tarnishing an already far-from-shiny U.S. image worldwide and setting a terrible example for the respect of human and judicial rights of prisoners, why is it still open?
Closing Guantanamo may not be simple. Many detainees find themselves in "country limbo"—returning to their "home" country will put their lives in danger or is no longer possible. Shutting down Guantanamo—and the secret detention centers that the U.S. government has elsewhere in the world—is clearly a necessary first step.
But more is needed. The U.S. legal interpretation of its treaty obligations and its "War on Terror" policies regarding the treatment of detainees must change regardless of where they are held. The judicial rights of the prisoners must be respected and the case of each prisoner must be handled transparently and properly. Detainees must be given fair trials in accordance with international law and without use of the death penalty.
A recent decision by the Supreme Court declining to hear appeals on military cases from Guantanamo and the recent trial of David Hicks by a special war crimes tribunal have brought the illegal detention issue back into the spotlight. This new round of trials is simply the old system with a new, very thin, coat of whitewash. These special courts do not offer the legal protections of other courts.
The New York Times explains, "One justification for the looser rules is that they will deal with the worst of the worst."2 Under any evaluation of who the "worst" are, trying them transparently should not be optional.
Amnesty International states: " The military commissions should be scrapped. The government should charge the Guantanamo detainees with recognizable criminal offenses and bring them before a fair trial before a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal, or else release them with full protections against further abuse."
At the very least, and until the 440 people held at Guantanamo can be properly charged or released, the United States should provide accurate and complete information about the people held there and elsewhere in the world as suspected terrorists.
Both within the United States and from other countries, public pressure to close the Guantanamo prison is increasing. Newly released prisoners tell stories of brutal treatment that clash with the official record and with U.S. government commitments to freedom and humane treatment.
Continued pressure is necessary to close the illegal prison. In the meantime, however, to assure the safety and respect for the human and legal rights of prisoners, human rights observers should be allowed full and complete access to Guantanamo.
The groups listed below are working to close the base. You can sign their petitions and involve yourself in numerous actions and campaigns to shut down the prison and the base.
Katherine Kohlstedt is Program Assistant for the IRC Americas Program in Mexico City. The Americas Program is online at http://americas.irc-online.org/.
For more information:
"What you can do"
Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
Petition to Close Guantanamo
The Road to Guantanamo (Movie)
Witness Against Torture
A campaign to shut down Guantanamo
Other articles from the IRC:
Dude, Where Are My Rights?
By Col. Daniel Smith, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Scrapping the Geneva Conventions
By Jim Lobe
No Standards, No Accountability
By Col. Daniel Smith, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Continuing to Repudiate International Law, Rumsfeld Rejects UN Access to Guantanamo
By Jim Lobe
- UN Convention Against Torture can be found at: http://www.hrweb.org/legal/cat.html
- Some Bumps at Start of War Tribunals at Guantánamo: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/01/washington/01gitmo.html?ei=5070&en=9beba20fcb4420f2&
While nothing is certain about the direction of this new government, it merits attention that within the first week of taking office, the Ortega administration announced the end of the IMF-pushed school autonomy policy, the launch of a program to revitalize small-scale farming, and the appointments of an anti-privatization activist to head the public water utility and a labor rights activist to lead the Labor Ministry. At the same time, these policy shifts are not the brainchild of any one politician or political party. They are the result of a growing civil-society consensus, backed by mounting public pressure, that the US-promoted neoliberal model has only further impoverished Nicaragua.
Will the development initiatives of Nicaragua’s civil society finally be respected? Or will outside interference once again attempt to quash Nicaragua’s proposals for its own development? Witness for Peace will continue to monitor the responses of the U.S. government and IMF in hopes that they maintain the restraint exercised over the last two months.
Witness for Peace is a politically independent, grassroots organization that educates U.S. citizens on the impacts of U.S. policies and corporate practices in Latin America and the Caribbean (www.witnessforpeace.org), and publishes analysis through the IRC Americas Program at www.americaspolicy.org.
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Cité Soleil is a sprawling slum of improvised dwellings inhabited by half a million Haitians, and plopped down amid large pools of dirty water and human and animal excrement. The UN Mission to Stabilize Haiti (MINUSTAH) "blue helmets" is officially a mission to fight "criminal gangs" controlling the neighborhood. Human rights activist Pierre-Antonine Lovinski says, "Everyday in Cité Soleil, soldiers assassinate poor people for no reason." Haiti, in his estimation, suffers repression that he defines as "a war against the poor." University of Haiti economics professor Camile Chalmers goes one step further, claiming that from a security standpoint, "we are worse off than before the military intervention."
In the neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince, like in the shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo and the slums of Bogota and Medellin, a war is being waged on the poor. This war has no intention of overcoming poverty. Rather, it aims to prevent the poor from organizing and resisting.
Raúl Zibechi is a teacher and researcher of social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, and adviser to social groups. He is a monthly collaborator of the IRC Americas Program (www.americaspolicy.org). Translated by Nick Henry from "Represión en Haití: la responsabilidad de la izquierda."
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Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez found a hero’s welcome when he visited Haiti on March 12. People from Port-au-Prince’s poor neighborhoods lined the streets of the capitol to cheer, chant, dance, and sing, with all the infectious enthusiasm of Haitian celebrations. President Chávez returned the affection. He jumped from his motorcade and joined the party, marching, even running with the crowd.
In the last two months, citizens of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Peru have taken to the streets to protest their countries’ complicity in MINUSTAH’s brutality. The MINUSTAH countries may soon find that in pursuing George Bush’s Haiti policy, they have tied their destiny to a sinking ship.
Human Rights Lawyer Mario Joseph manages the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux in Haiti, www.ijdh.org/bureau.htm. Brian Concannon Jr. is the Director of the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, www.HaitiJustice.org, and an analyst for the International Relations Center’s Americas Program. He was a Human Rights Observer for the United Nations in Haiti in 1995 and 1996.
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Massive tourism development in Loreto, Baja California could lead to a tenfold increase in the town’s population by 2025, but community input is key to the sustainability of the process.
Miguel Ángel Torres is co-founder and co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness, which is responsible for this series of investigative feature reports on sustainable development in the Gulf of California Region, made possible thanks to people throughout the region. It was sponsored by the Fondo Educación Ambiental, the International Center for Journalists, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. Translated by Alan Hynds for the IRC America’s Program at www.americaspolicy.org.
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These are great (and very timely) issues. Unfortunately this White House cares very little about the region and as your analyses point out is more concerned about securing future energy sources than helping the region succeed.
I have been reading your articles for some time, and my only observation is that somehow Hugo Chavez’s government is viewed as perfect and I do not see much criticism for relying so much on oil revenues, something he constantly uses as a point of attack against the United States for being addictive. Some of his policies, such as capping producer prices, are creating very unwanted side effects, such as widespread inflation (which affects hardest the poor), black markets, and producers abandoning certain markets because it is not possible to sell their products at higher prices than what it cost them to produce.
The solution to Latin America’s future is real integration amongst all of the countries, helping make better use of the abundant natural resources and making sure they are not exploited by multinational corporations, but with so much infighting it is difficult to foresee the region prospering (including my own country of Mexico).
—Federico De Silva