Skip to main content

Why has Obama abandoned his Guantanamo pledge?

By Polly Rossdale, special for CNN
April 18, 2013 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
President Barack Obama signed an executive order on January 22, 2009, to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. Five years later, the prison for terrorism suspects remains open, with 155 detainees (as of December 2013). Click through for a look inside the <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/11/opinion/warren-guantanamo-bay/index.html'>controversial facility</a>. Here, President George W. Bush's official picture is replaced by Obama's in the lobby of the headquarters of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo on January 20, 2009, the day the latter was sworn in as president. President Barack Obama signed an executive order on January 22, 2009, to close the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, within a year. Five years later, the prison for terrorism suspects remains open, with 155 detainees (as of December 2013). Click through for a look inside the controversial facility. Here, President George W. Bush's official picture is replaced by Obama's in the lobby of the headquarters of the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo on January 20, 2009, the day the latter was sworn in as president.
HIDE CAPTION
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Photos: Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Photos: Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
Inside Guantanamo Bay
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • U.S. President Barack Obama promised in 2008 to close Guantanamo Bay
  • Reprieve: It has taken three years to realize he missed his self-imposed deadline
  • U.S. admits more than 50 of 166 detainees in camp are on hunger strike - media reports
  • European parliament is debating the hunger strikes at the camp

Polly Rossdale is head of Reprieve's "Life After Guantanamo" project, which the human rights organization launched in 2009. Reprieve fights against the death penalty and provides support for prisoners on death row and at Guantanamo Bay. It says it currently "represents 15 prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and provides assistance for many more."

London (CNN) -- U.S. President Barack Obama failed to keep his 2008 election promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp at a U.S. naval base in Cuba because the world had stopped watching. Europeans, delighted at his election and pledge to abandon Bush-era torture practices that had sullied the U.S. reputation worldwide, assumed that he would do what he said was going to do. It has taken three years to realise that he missed his self-imposed deadline.

For many that realization has been brought about by the Guantanamo detainees themselves, who unable to voice their despair in any other way are now on hunger strike in large numbers. Even the U.S. military now admits that more than 50 of the 166 detainees in the camp are now involved. In reality, the number is much higher: Reprieve understands, through unclassified phone calls with our clients, that more than 130 are now on hunger strike.

Polly Rossdale
Polly Rossdale

These include men with close ties to Europe: Shaker Aamer is a Londoner, a UK resident with a British wife and four British kids living in the capital. He has been cleared for release twice -- by both the Bush and Obama administrations. Successive British governments have called for him to be returned home. Yet he is still in Guantanamo, more than a decade on from being taken into U.S. custody. A fortnight ago, he told his lawyer, Reprieve's Clive Stafford Smith, that he had joined the hunger strike and had already lost over 30 pounds in weight. "I can't read. I am dizzy and I fall down all the time," he said, adding "My back and my neck are getting worse day by day. I don't want the end of this torture here to be paralyzed. I want to carry my kids when I get home."

Nabil Hadjarab's father and grandfather both fought for the French army. He longs to return to his family in France -- his uncle, Ahmad Hadjarab, has said: "I am asking America for humanity, and asking France for gratitude." But so far Nabil has had neither -- he has now lost so much weight that he is being force-fed by Guantanamo personnel, strapped to a chair while a tube is pushed up his nose and down his throat -- an intensely painful process that has been described by the World Medical Association as inhuman and degrading treatment. Nabil has been cleared for release since 2007 -- yet over five years on from U.S. authorities deciding that he is no threat to anyone, he still languishes in Guantanamo. On Wednesday night on an unclassified call with his lawyer he told her he had "lost all hope of ever being released."

Another detainee, Younus Chekkouri hopes one day to be reunited with his family in Germany. He too has joined the hunger strike. On a recent unclassified call, he told Reprieve: "The nightmare has started again. For some time, things had got a bit better here ...but now it has changed again ... really, now it is just pain everywhere. I don't want to die in Guantanamo." Like Shaker and Nabil, Younus has never been given a trial or charged with any crime, and has been cleared for release by the U.S. authorities.

Hunger strikes in Guantanamo Bay
Could terror suspects end up in U.S.?

There are many more in Guantanamo like these men -- stuck in a limbo with no apparent end, adrift from even the most basic principles of the rule of law. The hope which rose on the election of President Obama, who promised to close Guantanamo, now seems like a cruel joke. It is easy to understand the desperation they must feel: as Shaker himself put it recently, "a little over 50% of the prisoners have been told they can go home -- or go somewhere -- but [they] are still here."

On Thursday the European Parliament tabled an urgent hearing on the hunger strike in Guantanamo. The debate is welcome. It is crucial that Europe realises that this is not just a U.S. issue -- it is our problem as well. European intelligence services worked closely with the U.S. in implementing the misguided policies of the so-called "War on Terror" that saw so many innocent men swept up, "rendered" and tortured, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Europe has tolerated for too long the U.S. departure from the rule of law with regard to people who deserve the support of European governments.

It must be hoped that this debate is a first step towards remedying this. There is much to welcome in the motion: a call for Europe to re-engage, to demand the closure of Guantanamo, and, crucially, to offer to resettle the dozen or so prisoners who have been cleared for release but cannot go home because of the risk of torture. If Europe follows through on this, there will still be hope that one day soon, men like Shaker, Nabil and Younous will be reunited with their families.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Polly Rossdale.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1435 GMT (2235 HKT)
Hamas' tactics have changed -- now the group is using commando-like tactics, says CNN's Ben Wedeman.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1540 GMT (2340 HKT)
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 2151 GMT (0551 HKT)
A nun, an AIDS researcher, an athlete and a family traveling on summer vacation. These were some of the victims aboard MH17.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 0021 GMT (0821 HKT)
Prince George isn't your average one year old. He started walking before he was one. Oh, and, he's going to be king -- of 16 countries.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 1136 GMT (1936 HKT)
Former President Bill Clinton acknowledges he got "very close" to helping achieve peace in the Middle East.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 0621 GMT (1421 HKT)
In an ambitious plan to upgrade urban India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi says he will build 100 "smart cities" across the country.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1127 GMT (1927 HKT)
Inspirational, creepy or just weird? CNN meets the 51-year-old man who dresses like a schoolgirl.
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 1100 GMT (1900 HKT)
A British nanotech company has created what it says is the world's darkest material.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1112 GMT (1912 HKT)
Yoga, meditation and watching a snake eat a frog alive: these are some of the experiences to be had at this Himalayan yoga retreat.
CNN joins the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on its horrors and highlighting success stories.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1152 GMT (1952 HKT)
The world's largest flying aquatic insect, with huge, nightmarish pincers, has been discovered in China's Sichuan province, experts say.
ADVERTISEMENT