Has Holder got a grip on Guantánamo?

Interestingly the Today programme’s big 8.10 interview this morning with US Attorney General Eric Holder went from the killing of Osama Bin Laden onto the issue of Guantánamo and also the fate of former UK resident Shaker Aamer.

Holder gave a stock answer about Aamer: the US was having “conversations” with the UK government about his case. Hmm. Conversations. Not much sense of urgency there. Shaker Aamer has been at GTMO since the start (February 2002). In other words he’s now into his tenth year at the camp. His tenth year. And the US is having conversations with the UK about him.

What on earth are they still talking about? William Hague and Nick Clegg have made clear their position that they want him released. The US has had nearly a decade to charge him with an offence and seem incapable of ever doing so. Please support the Amnesty e-petition to Hillary Clinton on Aamer. Maybe a few more emails in Ms Clinton’s inbox might hurry those conversations along.

But what’s holding it up? The worry has to be that the US has somehow decided that Aamer is one of the several dozen detainees that it insists it will not release and not allow to have a trial (it’s talked about 48 such people in the past, out of approximately 170 still detained). So no release or trial at all. Holder briefly alluded to this (though also glossing over it) in the Today interview. It was allowed under the “rules of war”, he said. It’s something I’ve railed against before: the US apparently invoking the rules pertaining to war to pretend that it is within its rights to indefinitely detain some of the GTMO men as prisoners of war.

The usual formula under international humanitarian law is that POWs are held until the “cessation of hostilities”. Think about this. The USA is suggesting that it will potentially keep untried people behind bars for as long as it takes to somehow defeat international terrorism. How long might this be? Another ten years? Another 20? Fifty? What about – and this is a key point after all – if some of those held like this are entirely innocent of any involvement in terrorism? (Given GTMO’s appalling track record as a process for securing justice this doesn’t seem unlikely). So, are the innocently-detained somehow to be the “collateral damage” of this punishment process?

The mind boggles. What about if other countries started doing the same with people it has designated “enemy combatants” or “international terrorists”? This road leads to the prospect of countries unilaterally denying people habeas corpus rights the world over (which, indeed, is already happening). Welcome news, perhaps, to repressive regimes itching to do this at the slightest pretext. Bad news for the international rule of law.

In a nutshell Guantánamo is still a travesty of justice and Holder’s interview this morning offered little reassurance that the US administration is prepared to confront this. Perhaps Mehdi Hasan is right to suggest that Obama needs a political challenge from those who would properly confront the USA’s fast-and-loose attitude to human rights.

Meanwhile, for yet another year Guantánamo will loom large in the “USA” entry in our new 157-country-strong Amnesty International Report 2011: State of the World’s Human Rights. It’s published tomorrow. Check out our post on it then.

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