In 2009, just two days after taking office, President Obama issued an executive order calling for the Guantanamo prison to be closed within a year, and for detainees to be given fair trials in U.S. federal courts. But, since then, he has repeatedly signed Congress's defense bills that keep Gitmo going, even while blaming Congress for his failure to keep his promise.
As several human rights groups have pointed out, until this changes and the prison is closed as promised, Gitmo will remain a big, black blemish on our national image, and a symbol of an immoral "war on terror" that will continue to serve as a recruiting tool for terrorists. It's an atrocity that Obama inherited, but now he owns it.
"It's not encouraging that the President continues to be willing to tie his own hands when it comes to closing Guantanamo," said C. Dixon Osburn, Director of the Law and Security Program at Human Rights First. "The injustice of Guantanamo continues to serve as a stain on American global leadership on human rights."
As long as Gitmo remains in business, so will the faulty military tribunals that are trying the detainees who are "lucky" enough to be charged and tried rather than held in legal limbo. According to Amnesty International, "[military commissions] have been specifically crafted to enable the U.S. authorities to circumvent protections that defendants would enjoy in a civilian courtroom. The fact that they have undergone multiple statutory and procedural revisions suggests that they fall short of the 'regularly constituted court' standard required by Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions."
And these military trials are also less efficient, noted Laura Pitter, Counterterrorism Advisor for Human Rights Watch: "The attacks of 9/11 were a great tragedy for all Americans and without doubt a crime that must be prosecuted. But it's disturbing to watch that horrific crime so dramatically change the U.S. system of justice - a source of pride for so many Americans. It's more disturbing given that it's not necessary or prudent. Federal courts have completed hundreds of terrorism cases since 9/11, while the commissions have dispensed with a mere seven."
I strongly urge President Obama to think about this again as he starts his second term. As a constitutional attorney, he should know as well as anyone that ensuring true justice does not mean that you're weak on terror. Indeed, it takes far more strength to do the right thing.