Seven Years Later: Our Power, Our Responsibility

This week we mark the 7th anniversary of the day the U.S. government first began warehousing “enemy combatants,” terrorism suspects and hapless wrong-place-wrong-time detainees at Guantánamo.  Since then, hundreds of detainees have been locked up and stripped of their legal rights, at least five have died in custody, and scores have attempted suicide (not to mention the more than 500 documented incidents of detainees trying to harm themselves).  The U.S. government’s malfeasance has metastasized all over globe to include torture, kidnapping and extraordinary rendition, as well as the CIA practice of “ghost detentions”—the secret and illegal imprisonment of in overseas prisons.

The past eight years have certainly been one of the darkest periods in our recent history. We’ve seen our own government trample human rights, commit war crimes and author an era of illegal practices reminiscent of some of the most repressive regimes in recent memory (see Gen. Pinochet). For this, as Michael Ratner (Center for Constitutional Rights) argues in the current issue of Amnesty International magazine, those responsible should be investigated, and if the evidence warrants it, they should be prosecuted.

Some of us in the human rights community have expressed cautious hope that the inauguration of Barack Obama as our nation’s 44th president will mark the end of this disgraceful era, that it will be the other bookend to January 11, 2002. But for this to become reality, we have to remember that now is not the time to dial down.  We applaud Mr. Obama for pledging to close Guantánamo, an important first step.  But the closure will be meaningful only if it is accompanied by “an unqualified return to America’s established system of justice for detaining and prosecuting suspects,” as Amnesty International, the ACLU, Human Rights First and Human Rights Watch have urged in a joint letter delivered to the presidential transition team last month.  We are categorically opposed to the creation of any other ad-hoc illegal detention system that would allow the executive branch to continue to suspend due process.  Any attempt to find a “third way” would amount to having a Guantánamo within our borders.

Since I became executive director of AIUSA three and a half years ago, I’ve often wondered if the inexorable and secretive nature of the Bush administration’s transgressions somehow robbed ordinary citizens of the belief that we can, as individuals with important common goals, make an impact.  If so, then this is the moment to reclaim our power—and shoulder our responsibility.  There is so much work to be done: holding the outgoing administration accountable for the war crimes it has committed, directing international attention and resources to address bloody conflicts overseas, addressing the continuing crisis of violence against women.  It is also a ripe moment for us to apply the human rights framework to urgent problems we face here at home, such as poverty and migrant detentions.

“Change you can believe in” is a phrase that has been trumpeted ad infinitum. But really, it is up to us. We have to make the change we believe in. And yes, we can.

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