It is shameful for Britain to support the degradation
of these terrorist suspects
The Independent (UK)
22 January 2002
Ben Bradshaw, the Minister of State at the Foreign Office, told the House of Commons yesterday that accusations about mistreatment of alleged terrorists held at Camp X Ray were "premature". The minister says that those held are being allowed three meals a day and as much water as they need and have the Muslim call to prayer broadcast over the tannoy system and access to the Red Cross. The three British prisoners are well, according to our officials, and have "no complaints" about ill-treatment. Mr Bradshaw, on behalf of the Government, pronounced himself satisfied with the regime the Americans have imposed.
But the photographs and news footage we have seen of the camp tell otherwise. Mr Bradshaw claims the prisoners who have been seen shackled, blindfolded, masked and kneeling were "in transit", as if that makes such appalling treatment excusable. Even if we were to take him at his word, it still remains the case that Guantanamo Bay resembles nothing so much as a concentration camp, its captives housed without privacy and open to the elements in what amount to chicken coops. Remarks by American officials about the hygiene of the prisoners have more than a hint of racism about them, while both politicians and officials readily refer to the captives as "terrorists", implying that there is barely any need for a trial since their guilt is so certain.
The treatment of these men is disgraceful, and the readiness of Mr Blair's Government to kowtow to such degradation is shameful. The abuse of human rights, which borders on torture, is not what we in Britain stood shoulder to shoulder with America for. But it is not simply a moral issue. Even on the cynical grounds of practical politics and diplomacy, the course America is taking is potentially disastrous. The savage and inhumane treatment meted out to the prisoners is losing much of the international political capital built up so skillfully by the Bush administration after 11 September. To take one example, the shaving of heads and beards of some prisoners is not just degrading; it also hands America's enemies a priceless propaganda gift. It is almost as if America seems bent on confirming the claims of the fanatics that the war on terror was, in fact, a war on Islam. There is a growing fear, however, that American politicians are playing to a vengeful domestic gallery and care little about the international response - which makes it all the more baffling that Mr Blair is so content to endorse their actions.
Nothing would harm America's standing more than the captives being denied a fair trial. American officials - and British ministers - are yet to give a convincing explanation as to why the "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh has the right to a proper trial whereas the captives at Guantanamo Bay have not. The question is simple: why not give all the alleged terrorists a proper trial? As it stands, we are faced with the prospect of the Americans dispensing military justice and, possibly, summarily executing dozens of these men. This will drive many more into the ranks of the terrorists, with incalculable consequences; indeed, it could even be the point that the war on terror turns against the United States.
The treatment of prisoners could have provided an opportunity for America to display the very liberal, democratic values that came under attack on 11 September. America could have followed the spirit of the Geneva Conventions and granted the captured fighters prisoner-of-war status. At the very least she could have treated her prisoners humanely. After all, humane treatment and a fair trial was the approach taken by the Allied powers after the Second World War when dealing with barbarous German and Japanese war criminals. We have seen modern-day dramas played out at international tribunals in Arusha, in Tanzania (for crimes committed in Rwanda), and The Hague (for crimes committed in former Yugoslavia). "Patient justice", as President Bush once called it, has been done and seen to be done in all these cases; why not in the war against terrorism? America is acting like a schoolyard bully. Instead of a high-profile demonstration of the superior moral values of the coalition against terror we are presented with the depressing spectacle of behaviour that demeans America -and her allies. It is an immoral as well as a dangerous situation, and Mr Blair must say so.