I’m not sure what to make of Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday. Asked about the closure of Guantanamo Bay, Tony Blair said
“I agree that it is an anomaly that should be closed; I have said that all along.”
Fine words, and welcome words, but is that really what the prime minister has been saying?
Back in 2003, when Federal Union ran its own investigation into the legal status of Guantanamo Bay and the UN body of principles on imprisonment that it violates, the Foreign Office did everything that it could to avoid answering the questions. (Read about this here.) If the government policy had in fact been that the camp should close, they could have said so then, but they didn’t.
Since then, a quick check through the records at 10 Downing Street reveals statements like this one on 17 July 2003:
“Asked if the pressure we had said we were exerting on the US regarding the British detainees at Guantanamo Bay was paying off, the PMOS [Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman] underlined that we had never said that pressure was being exerted on the US about this matter. All we had said was that discussions were taking place and were continuing. We had no intention of giving a running commentary on them.”
And on 26 January 2005, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said that “the Government had always said that the situation was not ideal and that we had concerns about it.” Not that the camp should be closed, note, merely that it was not ideal.
Leap forward a year, and cabinet minister Peter Hain makes headlines on 17 February 2006 for saying that the camp should be closed. “I would prefer that it wasn’t there and I would prefer it was closed,” he said. Asked if Tony Blair agreed, he answered: “I think so, yes.” If the prime minister had been saying this all along, Peter Hain might have been a bit more forthright.
The Attorney General went further on 10 May 2006 and said
“The existence of Guantanamo remains unacceptable. It is time, in my view, that it should close. Not only would it, in my personal opinion, be right to close Guantanamo as a matter of principle, I believe it would also help to remove what has become a symbol to many – right or wrong – of injustice.”
The camp at Guantanamo is an institutional scandal: visible proof of what can happen when human rights are treated as a gift from the government rather than as the right of the individual. (Read more on this here.) Guantanamo itself falls between national sovereignties: in Cuba but outside the reach of the Cuban state; under American control but outside the reach of American law. The people who set up the camp knew this and took advantage of it. The camp could have been sited in Florida or Texas: it is a simple matter to ask why it wasn’t.
The political point is not that the UK necessarily pursued such a dreadful policy, but that it at the very least acquiesced in one. If the prime minister opposed this policy, he evidently did not say so with any success. It goes to show the limitations of secret diplomacy and the need to replace it with democracy and the rule of law.