In his first week in office, President Obama quickly departed from his predecessor’s policies with his executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility and suspend military tribunals. While the nation will undoubtedly be mired in the damage of the Bush administration for years to come, Mr. Obama’s actions are a step toward rectifying the desecration perpetrated on human rights.
During his administration, Mr. Bush and the members of his administration refused to acknowledge that the circumstances at Guantanamo Bay were anything but comfortable. Mr. Cheney went so far as to take a twisted pride in the facility, stating in one interview that, “There isn’t any other nation in the world that would treat people who were determined to kill Americans the way we’re treating these people. They’re living in the tropics. They’re well fed. They’ve got everything they could possibly want.”
Not everyone agrees with Mr. Cheney, though. In fact, inspectors from the Red Cross ventured to disagree with his assessment, describing the treatment the prisoners received as part of “an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture.”
Suspects held in Guantanamo Bay are allegedly there because they are enemies of the United States in a war that is about defending freedom and democracy. It seems ironic that we will go to battle to defend these ideals, yet refuse to extend the principles embodied in them to all people.
Denying due process of law reflects poorly on our commitment to democratic principles. Violating human rights through torture raises questions about our commitment to the belief that we should not impose “cruel and unusual punishments,” as outlined in our Constitution.
Beyond remedying human rights violations and disregard for due process, the executive order holds symbolic meaning; it represents a renewed and admitted sense of accountability for the U.S. In denying prisoners their rights, Mr. Bush made the principles we fought for seem like a sham. In taking action to rectify Mr. Bush’s wrongs, Mr. Obama sets the example that the values espoused in our Constitution can truly have a universal application and that we do not see these rights as selectively applicable.
Additionally, Mr. Obama’s actions demonstrate a return to flexible policy and a rejection of the belief in executive infallibility. Under Mr. Bush, Guantanamo Bay received a deluge of criticism from the international community and from eminent domestic figures. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell chastised the detention center: “If it were up to me I would close Guantanamo not tomorrow but this afternoon…Essentially, we have shaken the belief that the world had in America’s justice system…and it’s causing us far more damage than any good we get from it.”
Mr. Bush was unfazed by any opposition to his policy. Despite reports of indiscretion, his administration would not own up to the fact that Guantanamo was a bastion of abuse and inequity. Mr. Obama’s actions demonstrate a divergence from the arrogant belief that poor policy should stand even in the face of facts that dispute its legitimacy.
Moreover, the executive order is representative of a larger break with Bush policy. During his presidency, Mr. Bush placed conditions on who was worthy of fair and just treatment; this is evident in looking at what happened at not only Guantanamo, but also Abu Ghraib.
Mr. Obama’s executive order demonstrates a belief that every person is entitled to justice and fair treatment. I can only hope that our new president continues to work to reverse the damage done by an administration that cared too little about the freedoms it desired to spread and too much about the spiteful assertion of its power.