x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Obama must do more to close Guantanamo

The continued imprisonment of 166 people at Guantanamo is a stain on the honour and image of the US.

In his first month as the US president, Barack Obama signed an order calling for the closing, within a year, of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre where his predecessor George W Bush jailed hundreds of foreigners implicated in terrorism. But nearly five years later, the prison still holds 166 individuals, including nearly 90 who have been cleared for release. Only nine have been convicted or charged.

To his credit, Mr Obama has not given up. On Tuesday he said he is considering options to close down the prison, pledging that he will be "re-engaging" with Congress on the issue.

It's about time. His statement came only after news that 100 inmates there have been on a hunger strike, the largest the prison has seen. Mr Obama has said he does not want those protesting to die, and has authorised their forced feeding. But it is unfortunate that it has taken such desperate acts to once again focus attention on the prisoners' status.

In fairness, those legal and political complexities are truly challenging. But the Guantanamo jail is a disgrace to a country that prides itself on human rights and the rule of law. Indefinitely locking people in the detention centre without charges, trial or hope of release has carved a festering wound into America's image and conscience alike.

The shameful gimmick of caching so-called "enemy combatants" offshore has invited rage from across the globe; as Mr Obama himself admitted on Tuesday, the prison has itself become a "recruitment tool for terrorists". Most troubling, 86 inmates have been cleared for release but remain, mainly because of US domestic political considerations.

The American Civil Liberties Union says there are two steps Mr Obama can take immediately: assign a non-Pentagon point person to head the closure push, and order the defence chief to begin certifying transfer orders. Both options would clear the way for some inmates' release.

There have been instances in which terrorists have been charged and convicted in US civilian courts; those convicted are serving their terms in US prisons. But many lawmakers have chosen to block transfers from Guantanamo to avoid prickly conversations in their own districts.

This standoff, and this shameful detention centre, are the product of a long series of errors and evasions that started with the Bush administration's efforts to evade the law. In the long run, efforts to sidestep basic legal procedures have a way of rebounding against governments.

Mr Obama may have waning influence among congressional lawmakers; he couldn't even push an assault weapons ban through Congress last month. But he does have tools at his disposal to get Guantanamo closed. He must use them now.