I must admit it. I was pleased when President Obama became president. I’m not a big follower of US politics but I read the odd article. One of the things that seemed to be his strongest card was his realisation about how much the Guantánamo Bay camp was poisoning the world-wide view of the US and also the UK. It said that there was one rule for the US and another for people captured or kidnapped around the world, tortured and flown to a place under US control that wasn’t subject to US law. He also seemed to articulate a sensitivity to interfering in other countries with an equal sentiment that human rights were vital.
It seemed to me that this balance was the right one to have. Most sensible people realised that Guantanamo Bay and our Middle-East adventures (especially in Iraq) has been a major own-goal for the west. How can we ask people to abide by the rule of law whilst not doing it ourselves? If we cannot use our own legal system to tackle extremism then what is it that we are protecting?
But I think that Obama has recently appeared to be in danger of making two major decisions (even if by default) that could have massive negative long-term consequences.
It seemed that Obama understood the problem of Guantánamo Bay and was committed to closing down the camp and trying alleged terrorists in US courts.
So to hear on the news that all this is being junked and that its back to business as normal is quite shocking. So few of the detainees are even being scheduled for any sort of trial:
Some 172 detainees remain in Guantánamo, of whom fewer than 40 have been earmarked for trial in either criminal courts or military commissions.
This is nearly ten years after 9/11.
Even people who lost loved ones in 9/11 disagree with this decision, the Guardian quote Colleen Kelly who lost her brother in the attack :
“There are some seriously dangerous people being held in Guantánamo Bay, I think the world understands that.
“But I think there’s also a huge opportunity here being missed to show the world that not only does the US talk the talk, we walk the walk also.” She said that the past nine years since 9/11 showed that the criminal system of justice had proven to be fully robust enough to deal with difficult terrorism cases. “There have been more than 170 successful anti-terror prosecutions in civilian courts since 9/11, which to me suggests they work.”
I hope that this is only a temporary U-turn. Justice to be done must be seen to be done. For the west to ask others to abide by human rights must set its own house in order. For Democracy to flourish we must see that the rule of law and justice are supreme. Every Democracy or Republic that failed in the past (whether in Ancient Greece or Rome or that in England in the 1650’s) all too often fails because it defends itself by breaking its own logic that Democracy and the rule of law must take precedence.
The second concern is that of Libya. Understandably there is a major focus in all the news media over the disaster in Japan. The thousands that have lost their lives, the threat of a nuclear disaster there. It’s all understandable. But the danger to the world, I believe, is greater in Libya and North Africa. It’s easy to think of Libya as an oil-rich small country (by population) run by a despot. Its significance lies in that if Gaddafi is able to hang on and suppress the people of Libya then every other dictator in the area will do the same and the simmering discontent and anger against the west will continue – and probably heighten. Already we are seeing Bahrain bringing in Saudi Arabian troops to suppress the protests. Other despots will no doubt follow the lead.
The UK, France and Lebanon are tabling a motion at the United Nations to impose a no fly zone. It is bound to be vetoed by China and Russia both of whom have a tradition of vetoing interfering in the internal affairs of another nation. The reason is obvious; both have bad human rights records and don’t want other countries questioning what they get up to. But the key is, in fact, President Obama. He is the one person who can make a difference to North Africa and the Middle-East. His is the one country that could impose a no-fly zone (and Robert Gates is factually wrong when he said that it would require an attack first. The threat may well be enough to ground Libyan airplanes as it did in Iraq). He could use the call of the Arab League for a no-fly zone as a way to implement it.
By President Obama standing by we are seeing an increasingly aggressive Gaddafi threatening more and more blood and violence. Japan may end up losing 11,000 people due to the earthquake and Tsunami. This figure could be multiplied in Libya and freedom and democracy set back in North Africa and the Middle East by decades. But the thing is that President Obama’s dithering is a decision. And this decision is, I believe, even more disastrous for the long term peace of the world than the disaster of Japan.
We know that the Libyan leader is unstable and violent. Pan Am 103 showed us that. In addition to external terrorism he is known for the appointment of violent people around him. The mayor of Benghazi (the rebel stronghold) was appointed by Gaddafi because when an execution of a Gaddafi opponent was taking place she lept up onto the scaffold and pulled him so that he died more quickly.
Nick Robinson (of the BBC) has just asked the question is “America fiddling whilst Libya burns?” The people of Libya have asked for help from outside. They have pleaded with the west to go to their aid – why should any despot fear being brought to justice when we see the west so pusillanimous?
It would be really interesting to have some American readers of this blog to give their American view of all of this (as well as others of course!)