On the 17th anniversary of the opening of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, CAGE Research Director Asim Qureshi argues that British officials had to be shamed into advocating for British citizens and residents incarcerated in the modern gulag.
Around this time 16 years ago, I submitted my draft Masters thesis to my supervisor – it focused on the legal penumbra that was and continues to be Guantanamo Bay. At the time I was especially taken with the whole idea of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Conventions as a standard by which hostilities should be conducted.
I’ll admit, I was quite taken with the whole subject and firmly believed in it, especially as it sat well alongside my own beliefs as a Muslim.
I had only been volunteering for the website CAGE (then Cageprisoners) for about two months and they had organised an event at my university. Their key speaker was a lawyer with decades of experience working with those facing the death penalty, largely in the south of the U.S., but who had also turned his focus towards Guantanamo. Clive Stafford-Smith spoke about the difficulties associated with the detention camps, and the ways in which lawyers were being blocked from being given genuine access to the detainees.
With the entirety of my one year of studying the Geneva Conventions I could muster, I boldly declared in the Q&A that there were ways in which we could rally international support by highlighting how certain provisions were clearly being violated (as some rose-tint magically appeared on my glasses). To Clive’s credit, he responded to me more kindly than I probably deserved, but then drove home his point:
“The law does not work. There is only one way to make governments move on this issue. We need to embarrass these b**tards.”
Lies and obfuscation
When I formally began working for CAGE the following year, these were words that I understood more fully. It became clear to us that politicians would only ever move when they were being forced to do so. We could see how they would consistently lie and obfuscate when it was politically expedient for them to do so, in order to avoid any accusations of having been involved in wrongdoing.
As we now know, politicians such as Tony Blair and Jack Straw knew a great deal about the rendition and torture programme, and yet were only moved to help British citizens detained at Guantanamo when public sentiment turned against them.
I recall being in meetings with politicians, who again in the early years said that they could not make representations on behalf of British residents such as Binyam Mohammed and Shaker Aamer, because neither of them were actually citizens – despite both having strong and deep roots to the UK. It was only when evidence emerged through the work of organisations like CAGE and Reprieve, that the political class were finally “embarrassed” into assistance.
I think this is probably the one feature of the War on Terror and our efforts to combat its racism that I will never forget, and always place at the centre of my responses. No one will help our communities unless we force them to do so. To expect benevolence from the state at a time when Muslims are demonised by politicians, the media, police officers, judges, and now (through Prevent) even public sector workers, is a false expectation.
For me these 17 years have sent the strongest message that we must as communities take strength from our own abilities. As CAGE has proven time and again, you can challenge the state and impact on policy while retaining your ethics and integrity.
The start of a new year brings with it new opportunities. As we remember the 17 year that Guantanamo Bay caged its first detainees in the War on Terror, my call is one of not settling for scraps.
We should not be willing to accept a securitised narrative about Muslims posing a special threat to societies around the world; we should not accept that black lives are somehow inherently dangerous; we should not accept that we need to police thoughts and beliefs; and we should never accept that a gulag like Guantanamo Bay can continue to exist in this world.
It is time we had higher expectations of the world we live in.