Guantánamo Bay – A Sign of things to Come?

Guantánamo Bay, an American army base containing 3,000 US military personnel, is located at the southern end of Cuba. It has over the past two years been used as a prison for 660 detainees from the ‘War on Terror’.The use of the base as a prison for ‘enemy combatants’ has generated a great deal of controversy. This term‘enemy combatants’conceals the fact that the prisoners have no rights whatsoever and exposes the hypocrisy of the US government.

Guantánamo Bay, an American army base containing 3,000 US military personnel, is located at the southern end of Cuba. It has over the past two years been used as a prison for 660 detainees from the 'War on Terror'. The US assumed possession of the base during the Spanish-American war in 1898, and signed a lease agreement for the Bay with the Cuban government in 1903. The base for all intents and purposes is US territory, as the US and Cuba signed another deal in 1934 leasing the Bay 'in perpetuity' to the US government.

The use of the base as a prison for what the US government calls 'enemy combatants' has generated a great deal of controversy. The term 'enemy combatants' is questionable in and of itself. The US government decided to call the prisoners this rather than POWs (Prisoners of War), because the term POW would guarantee the prisoners certain rights under the Geneva Convention. All this term of 'enemy combatants' really does is conceal the fact that the prisoners have no rights whatsoever and exposes the hypocrisy of the US government.

The US government raised quite a fuss during the war on Iraq, when Iraqi television showed pictures of captured US soldiers (who were considered Prisoners of War). It was claimed that the Iraqi government was breaking the Geneva Convention by exploiting the prisoners by humiliating them on television. This reeks of hypocrisy, as the 'enemy combatants' at Guantánamo Bay, which is in reality a concentration camp, have been held in absolutely inhumane conditions – paraded around on television with bags on their heads and with their hands and legs constantly bound. They have no rights at all, including the right of legal representation, and have yet to be formally accused of anything. If anything like this had been done to US soldiers, the response of the US government would have been swift and harsh.

The case of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay also completely exposes the hypocrisy of the so-called 'War on Terror'. The 'War on Terror' has proven absolutely ineffectual against terrorism. Rather than actually trying to solve the social and economic problems that result in terrorism, the US is trying to actually fight a war with small bands of guerillas and terrorists. The 'War on Terror' achieved absolutely nothing in curbing terrorism – in fact it has caused an increase in terrorist activity. One only has to look at the situation in Iraq, where more US soldiers have died since the official end of hostilites than during the actual war, or at the situation in Israel/Palestine conflict. Al-Queda has now also moved into Iraq in a big way, whereas they weren't present (at least they weren't a major presence) beforehand. One can obviously point to the fact that there has not been a repeat attack on the scale of September 11, but just because this hasn't happened yet does not mean that it may not come about.

George W. Bush and company have torn up the US constitution and the Bill of Rights, by introducing the Patriot Act and the introduction the department of Homeland Security. Terrorism and the so-called war against it have only proven themsleves to be the excuses needed by the US administration to strengthen the state apparatus. The 'War on Terror' is also the excuse that US imperialism needed to launch military adventures around the world. US imperialism, due to the fercious struggle for markets worldwide, needs to conquer new markets and territories, and the attacks on September 11 played right into their hands. It is ironic that in order to defend democracy, democracy itself must be undermined. The new security measures in the US are also costing a lot of money – money that could be used to aid the ailing US economy and help the growing number of unemployed and poor in the US. Along with the unprecendented increase in US military expenditure, the US government will find security and the domestic war on terror a very expensive adventure. President Bush wants to spend $3.5 billion, a 1,000-percent increase, on the nation's “first responders” - police, firefighters and Emergency Medical Teams. Another $11 billion has been alotted for border security, a $2 billion increase. $6 billion is to be used to defend against bioterrorism. $700 million will be used to improve intelligence-gathering and information-sharing between agencies and throughout all levels of government. A further $230 million will be used to create Citizen Corps to help defend communities against terrorist attacks. This money could easily be used to aid the working class and poor in the US and around the world. Pumping billions of dollars into security and imperialist adventures will not solve the problem of terrorism. The main problems are of course capitalism and imperialism.The US and its allies must endeavour to actually solve the social and economic roots of terrorism, but of course this will never happen. This must be accomplished by the working class.

International pressure has finally forced the US government to do something about the situation of the prisoners at Guantánamo Bay. The US administration has finally relented and will now put some of them on trail, or send some of them home to be dealt with, as in the case of Britain. But these will not be fair trails where one is considered innocent until proven guilty – these will be military tribunals where the 'enemy combatants' will be assigned military lawyers. They will have no right to choose their own legal representation. It seems clear that the US administration would prefer to assign the prisoners lawyers so that they can get the convictions they want. Everything seemed to be going according to plan except that last week, five of the soldier-lawyers assigned to defend the first group of prisoners to be tried filed a "friend of the court" brief to the Supreme Court. This brief claims that the constitution "cannot countenance an open-ended presidential power with no civilian review whatsoever." To allow this, the brief continues would give Mr. Bush "monarchical" powers and cast the detainees into a legal "black hole". These lawyers genuinely want to defend the rights of their clients, as they were trained. What is very interesting is that these lawyers had to obtain prior permission from the Pentagon's legal department before they could submit the brief to the Supreme Court. It is a very powerful symbol given that this is the first public criticism of the US administrations policies from within the armed forces. The administration has now relented, if only a little, by claiming that a civilian review panel comprised of 4 people will be able to make recommendations on the cases against the prisoners and the sentences they receive.

The Supreme Court is now examining the legal status of the naval base at Guantánamo Bay. The administration's argument goes something like this (as it was presented by a government lawyer to a startled Federal Appeals Court in San Francisco): seeing as the base is not part of United States sovereign territory, the detainees should have no legal rights, even if it were to mean they were tortured or summarily executed by their captors.

The administration lost that case. The Court rejected the administration's claimed right to hold the Guantánamo prisoners indefinitely and to hear them only before military courts, saying also that the procedure was "counter-intuitive and undemocratic".

The administration has also suffered legal defeats over two Americans it has deemed to be 'enemy combatants'. Another federal appeals court in New York ruled in December of last year that the government had no authority to detain Jose Padilla, the so-called 'dirty bomber', who was arrested in Chicago in May 2002. The Supreme Court has just decided to review the case of Yaser Hamdi, who was captured in Afghanistan in late 2001. Incidently, the administration suddenly agreed in December to allow Mr Hamdi access to a lawyer, making him the first alleged 'enemy combatant' to be given such a 'privilege'.

The Bush administration has been fighting hard to trample democratic rights. Amidst all of the recent legal defeats, they have won one battle: the Supreme Court refused to hear a case about the government's right to withhold the names and details of more than 700 foreigners who were arrested in the US in the aftermath of September 11th.

The labour movement in the US and around the world must pay close attention to the precendents being set in the US. The Bush administration is pressuring other countries around the world, such as Canada, Britain, as well as other so-called 'democratic' countries to follow their example and pass draconian laws. Canada has passed the "Public Safety Act", and Britain has passed the "Anti-Terrorism Crime and Security Act" and is planning on passing the "Civil Contingencies Bill", a bill which is openly described as a way for the government to operate against civil disobedience and other 'enemies of the state'.

These are dangerous precendents for the future that the labour movement must fight. The bourgeois governments of the West are preparing for future battles – class battles that is. Over the past few years we have witnessed in most western countries and increase in strike activity and civil disobedience. Over the past year we have seen demonstrations in most western countries of unprecendented size, in particular against the war in Iraq. As these movements of workers and students are signs of future battles to come, against which the bourgeoisie and their representatives in western governments are trying to protect themselves, then the labour movement must see these draconian laws in the same light.