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Obamas security speech: a president unbound?

He’s in a “very difficult position” politically. He’s “trapped” by the Senate’s decision to block money. Oh, dear, Barack Obama is a virtual prisoner and his plan to close Guantánamo is left in limbo.

Listening to some news reports, you’d almost think that the president of the United States was a powerless captive of the system, a prisoner of circumstances, rather than the supremely confident and highly popular world leader who’s promised closure of a notorious detention centre that’s brought shame on the USA.

Is he really in such a tight spot? It’s hard to believe somehow. If he can order a massive fiscal bail-out for Wall Street you’d think he might be able to arrange for one of the world’s biggest armed forces to airlift a couple of hundred prisoners out of the camp and put them in a secure facility in the United States. Wouldn’t you?

Anyway, what to make of his heavily trailed speech from the US National Archive in Washington this afternoon? Here’s my two cents’ worth:

Good things:

Some Guantánamo detainees are going to be tried in federal courts – very much what Amnesty’s been saying for years. Three cheers for that.

GITMO prisoners who’ve been ordered for release by the courts (21 so far, he says) will … be released. Right!

And, meanwhile, ones who can be “transferred” safely to another country (about 50 identified by the Obama-ordered review, apparently) will indeed be transferred. A cautious welcome for this. It shouldn’t be forced transfer to places where detainees would be at risk of arbitrary detention (all over again) or worse, but if it’s safe transfer-cum-release, then fine.

Bad things:

The military commissions are staying. Obama reckons that because they were used by George Washington in the 18th century, they’re okay for the 21st. (Would a doctor say because they were using leeches in the time of George III, then we should use them now? If horses and carriages were good enough for those old-timers …)

Worst of all though, is the “fifth category” of Guantánamo prisoner. These, in Obama’s account, “can’t be prosecuted” (at all!). He reckons they include those that have had weapons training, prisoners who “swear allegiance” to Osama bin Laden, who are “at war with America” or who “want to kill Americans”. Disturbingly enough, this group also apparently includes those being held on the basis of “tainted evidence” (presumably extracted via waterboarding and other torture). This group – an unspecified number – are, it seems, going to be held indefinitely. Until they die? Unbelievable.

So there you have it. Leaving aside the stirring rhetoric (some if it containing very welcome reaffirmations of “core values”), Obama ruled out any commission of inquiry into Bush-era “war on terror” human rights violations, made no mention of Bagram detainees and remained unapologetic about his u-turn on blocking publication of torture photos.

In one bound he might appear to have leapt free of his tight political spot, but I have to say the president has come up with awful fudge over Guantánamo and human rights.                

About Amnesty UK Blogs
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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