on the world: a view on human rights
The US-run prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, where 154 men remain held almost wholly without charge or trial for more than 12 years, is perhaps the most potent symbol of torture and injustice this century. Nonetheless, political inaction and lack of mainstream media interest in the closure of the illegal prison facility has meant that the issue and the plight of the individuals directly affected have slid down the agenda.
This situation was briefly reversed in 2013 when a mass hunger strike by prisoners protesting indefinite detention and abuses by military guards could no longer be ignored and prompted US President Barack Obama to make the latest in a long line of broken promises to close the facility. In a national defence address he gave on 23 May 2013, he conceded that the premise for opening Guantánamo “was found unconstitutional five years ago” and it “has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.”
The response to the hunger strike itself was particularly brutal, and involved solitary confinement, intrusive physical searches of prisoners and force-feeding of the hunger-striking prisoners, all of which are considered forms of torture or inhumane and degrading treatment. The hunger strike is still on-going. A year on, Barack Obama has made little progress on his latest pledge.
In that space of time, only 12 prisoners have been released, even though the majority have long been cleared for release; only a handful face any charges or trial. This situation is not acceptable for the prisoners who have been held in limbo for the past 12 years or for human rights activists. To remind Barack Obama of his latest broken pledge, human rights activists and organisations around the world held a Global Day of Action to Close Guantánamo on the anniversary of this last major speech. Over 45 actions were held in at least seven countries. Hundreds of people took part in actions worldwide on Friday 23 May.
In London, UK, more than 70 people joined a lunchtime demonstration in Trafalgar Square. Activists, some wearing orange jumpsuits and black hoods, held up placards that read “Not Another Day in Guantánamo” with the word “justice” chained to each letter of the name of the prison camp. As well as calling for the closure of Guantánamo, activists used a larger-than-life inflatable model of British resident Shaker Aamer to call for the return of this prisoner, who has long been cleared for release, to his family in London. The silent protest drew a lot of positive interest from the public, many of whom were unaware of the situation due to the lack of media coverage.
In Krakow, Poland, a handful of protesters held a peaceful demonstration outside the US consulate. Leaflets were handed out about the situation in Guantánamo Bay and also drew awareness to “the secret CIA torture prison in Stare Kiejkuty, one of many sites in the global archipelago of secret CIA ‘black sites’ [for which] Poland supposedly received 15 million USD in return for this shameful service.” One of the placards held up stated “We Demand the Truth about Stare Kiejkuty.” Part of the demonstration was filmed by Polish TV, but the protesters also received some hostile attention from a plain-clothes policeman.
In Munich, Germany, around a dozen people gathered at the Odeonsplatz in the evening. Some of the protesters wore orange jumpsuits and all held up placards calling for the closure of Guantánamo as well as welcoming Moroccan prisoner Younous Chekkouri, concerning whom media reports have recently claimed the US may ask Germany to accept him, as Chekkouri has family in Germany. The two-hour protest travelled to various well-known sites around the city, including the Palace of Justice, Sendlinger, and ending in Karlsplatz. Passers-by responded very positively and many people stopped to ask questions and talk about Guantánamo after recognising the distinctive orange jumpsuits. According to the organiser, such a protest is important “because no one is free when others are oppressed.”
In Toronto, Canada, a handful of protesters dressed in orange jumpsuits gathered in Dundas Square at lunchtime to demand the closure of Guantánamo and raise awareness about Omar Khadr, the Canadian former Guantánamo child prisoner who is the only person to have been tried and convicted as an adult since World War II for war crimes allegedly committed as a minor, and on the basis of torture evidence. Khadr is currently serving out the remainder of his sentence in Canada, where the government and the media continue to vilify him. The protest organiser said “We ask that not another year goes by where Obama’s empty rhetoric keeps that facility open. We’re here to support Omar Khadr as well.”
In Mexico City, a handful of people held a protest outside the US Embassy. They wore orange jumpsuits and hoods, and held up placards calling for the closure of Guantánamo and an end to torture there. They were asked to move away from the building by the police and continued their protest nearby. Plain-clothes policemen were then sent to speak to the protesters who asked if they were related to the prisoners. No Mexicans have been held at Guantánamo.
In Sydney, Australia, the 23rd May was used for a social media campaign with a public meeting held the next day, Saturday 24 May. The crowded meeting, attended by over 200 people, included a screening of the film The Road to Guantánamo, and was followed by talks by human rights activists and former prisoner David Hicks.
In the US, hundreds of people took part in over 40 actions across the country, ranging from over one hundred protesters in New York’s Times Square and outside the White House for a rally in Washington, dozens in cities like Chicago and San Francisco, to smaller protests elsewhere. Lawyers for the prisoners and activists spoke at the larger events. In New York, protesters held placards challenging Barack Obama with his own rhetoric, stating “Is this who we are?” An opportunity to take a clear message to their own government, as well as popular tourist and visitor sites, government buildings were also targeted.
A common feature of many of the protests is that due to a lack of media coverage, many people are unaware that Guantánamo Bay is still open and of what goes on there, although many are sympathetic once they do know. It is unfortunate then that the mainstream media chose not to cover the day of action, particularly when lawyers for the prisoners and human rights experts were among those involved in the US. The exception was Australia, although the media, a tool of democratic accountability, has largely chosen to abdicate its responsibility on this issue.
Nonetheless, the very public and visual actions helped to raise a large amount of awareness and galvanise joint actions by activists on an issue that Barack Obama himself seems, at least in theory and his speeches, to agree with us on. All of the activists and organisations involved are committed to holding the US president to his promise and will continue to bring pres sure when they can wherever they are until the closure of Guantánamo is no longer the subject of political speeches but of history classes.
Part of this post in included in the following blogpost: http://worldwithouttorture.org/2014/05/27/call-to-close-guantanamo-bay-is-marked-around-the-globe/