Hundreds of US nationals are picked up around the world by a foreign government fighting a “war for national security”. The government in question is reacting to evidence that a recent bombing on its territory which left thousands of civilians dead was instigated by a shadowy network based in the United States. The detainees, according to evidence the detaining power says it has but refuses to reveal, are in some way associated with this network. The detainees, a few of them children, are strapped, shackled and blindfolded, into transport planes. Some are forced to urinate and defecate on themselves during the long flights to an island military base. In this offshore prison camp they are held incommunicado in tiny cells, denied access to lawyers, relatives or the courts, and subjected to repeated interrogations and a punitive regime aimed at encouraging their “cooperation”. A presidential order announces plans to try some of the detainees in front of executive bodies with the power to hand down death sentences against which there would be no right of appeal to any court.
The months turn into years. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment of the US detainees emerge from the island base, as do reports of psychological deterioration and suicide attempts among the detainees. Interrogation teams are said to have access to the medical files of the detainees in order to help them locate individual weaknesses. The detaining power admits to having authorized interrogation techniques including sleep deprivation, stress positions, isolation, hooding, sensory deprivation and the use of dogs to induce fear. Evidence mounts that these and other techniques have been more widely used than the authorities are willing to admit. It becomes known that the detaining power earlier discussed how its agents could avoid prosecution for torture and war crimes committed during interrogations in the “war for national security”.
Some detainees are released back to the USA, appearing to have had no or only very tenuous links to the shadowy network. At every turn, the detaining power continues to resist efforts to have the lawfulness of the hundreds of remaining detentions challenged in court. All the time, it continues to profess its commitment to the rule of law and human rights. Its words are increasingly recognized as empty rhetoric, but some other governments begin to imitate its practices, using the “war for national security” as a pretext for their own repressive conduct.
Would the USA tolerate this treatment of its citizens by another government? Would the international community accept this threat to the rule of law and human rights? Surely not, and yet the USA continues to perpetrate just such abuses in the far from hypothetical Guantánamo Bay prison camp in Cuba, where almost 550 detainees of more than 30 nationalities remain detained without charge or trial. On 11 January 2005, the Guantánamo prison will enter its fourth year. In its more than 1,000 days of executive detentions, Guantánamo has become a symbol of a government’s attempt to put itself above the law. The example it sets is of a world where basic human rights are negotiable rather than universal. Such a world, although built in the name of national security, is dangerous to us all.
This is a culture of life.