Obama: quick off the mark

As Richard Hammond might say, sometimes things move fast, and Obama’s certainly not letting the grass grow under his feet over Guantánamo and human rights.

As regular readers – both of you! – of this blog will know, I was recently plugging an Amnesty viral film spoofing the idea of Obama as superhero. Is it a bird, is it a plane … if the new president carries on like this we may have to pretend the film was serious all along (even the part where Obama single-handedly stops global warming…).

Having been a Bush-watcher for Amnesty right through his two inglorious terms, it’s now positively surreal to see the whole edifice of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Hayden-Gonzales “war on terror” starting to crumble.

Yesterday’s executive orders were spot on. The heavily trailed intention to close Guantánamo was no surprise, the announcement of a ban on torture excellent and the (to me, at least) unexpected news that the secret prison system is to be shut down a very welcome bonus.

As the Guardian says, dealing with the tip of the iceberg (Guantánamo) was widely expected, going after the iceberg itself (the network of CIA-administered black site detention centres) is far more wide-reaching and far more significant.

Change. Ok! I could be imagining it, but I think some hardened human rights campaigners in my office have suddenly discovered they have smile muscles. I’m seeing teeth (the yellowy British variety) for the first time in years! It seems that more than seven years of campaigning against human rights abuses in the “war on terror” is now paying off.

The need to bring terrorists to justice was never in doubt, but the means – in the now thoroughly discredited “war on terror” – were always spectacularly wrong. (I wonder: are our government’s ministers taking all this in when it comes to pre-trial detention periods, striking deals with countries that torture and incarcerating people under “control orders” without a trial or evidence?)

Meanwhile, let’s not forget how cruel this “security” “war” became. Recall the Abu Ghraib torture photos. Read Murat Kurnaz, the German-Turkish man on his horrific (and brilliantly told) experiences at the hands of his US captors in Afghanistan and Guantánamo. Or Moazzam Begg, in his groundbreaking books. Or the story of Yemeni Khaled al-Maqtari, terrorised in a black site prison for over two years.

Amnesty has a checklist on human rights and the “war on terror” for the Obama administration’s first 100 days – to judge by the speed of events his team may already have been looking at it – and things like a commission of inquiry into how things ever got this bad, who were the perpetrators and their accomplices, and ensuring redress and compensation to abused and unfairly detained people are all important issues to come.

But for now: credit where credit’s due. Well done to President Obama for grasping the nettle on human rights so quickly, thanks to all the fantastic human rights campaigners (including former detainees and relatives) who have supported Amnesty’s work in this area all these years and … er, well done us!

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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