Australia not free of Gitmo shame
5/01/2009 7:38:00 AM
The Australian Government has probably been sensible to reject a request from the outgoing Bush Administration that it resettle here a number of detainees from Guantanamo Bay, but the argument is by no means clear cut. That's because of Australia's own role in helping create the circumstances which mean that many of the detainees in question, even if innocent of crimes in the war against terror, are angry, resentful, and, in many cases, grossly traumatised by the circumstances of their incarceration. That the Australian aid and comfort given to their detention and the way in which the Bush Administration violated both international law and its own constitution occurred during the days of the Howard Government is neither here nor there. Nor does it matter that requests to resettle some detainees, both recently and about a year ago, have come from the present US administration, and not the Barack Obama administration that will take power from January 20.
Obama was a critic, if a muted one, of what was happening at Guantanamo Bay and has promised to close it. Likewise, Labor figures in Australia could claim (weakly) to have been critics of what was happening there, especially in relation to David Hicks, in Howard's time. Any criticism was generally terribly timid, for fear of being painted by John Howard as anti-American, or soft on terrorism, charges which were made anyway. But the idea that either Obama or Labor's history absolves them, or the nations they represent, from some responsibility for sorting out the mess is nonsense. So is the idea that our refusal will cause no hard feelings or problems, our answer has been addressed to George W.Bush rather than Obama. In several weeks' time, what is now Bush's problem will be Obama's problem, and even assuming that Obama wants to treat the problem differently than Bush, he will be grateful for any international assistance he can get.
Australia's moral involvement in the problem is compounded by the uncommonly supine and supportive role played by John Howard, his foreign minister, Alexander Downer, and his attorney-general, Phillip Ruddock, when international criticism were made of the detention regime. Australia was probably not very influential in the establishment of Guantanamo Bay, nor the array of decisions which made it so odious and morally shameful: imagining (or wanting) a legal limbo, free of the supervision and control of either US or international law; deciding to permit interrogation methods legally amounting to torture, and any number of highly coercive techniques that, if not torture, were themselves violations of civilised law; attempting to devise a kangaroo trial system, able to use tainted evidence, some of which would not be available to the accused, on ''offences'' not known either to US or international law; and in a closely allied process of ''renditions'' by which the US orchestrated a traffic of people under its control in and out of compliant foreign countries, where prisoners could be tortured while the US blandly denied any knowledge of what was going on. The whole process is the more shameful because the war against terror was supposedly for human values, the rule of law, and human rights. America was on the right side, but its illegal and immoral conduct seriously compromised its capacity to make its case.
But even if Australian influence in the processes could not have amounted to much, Australia was virtually alone of America's allies to think nothing much wrong with what the US was doing. Even America's most obvious and most steadfast ally, Tony Blair, of Britain, completely disavowed Guantanamo Bay, and would not cooperate with it. By contrast, the then Australian government would not criticise, would occasionally praise, or, at most, seek tiny concessions in relation to two Australians. Some ministers even mused aloud on the mildness of sleep deprivation.
Naturally, most of those in Guantanamo Bay had been involved, at least to some degree, with the Taliban or al-Qaeda. But the overwhelming proportion were at its lowest levels and some, including young boys, seemed simply to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Even now, more than seven years after September 11, very few have been tried or found guilty of anything, even by still unsatisfactory processes. The US now more or less accepts that only a tiny proportion more should have to face any processes, the rest not being guilty of breaches of domestic, military or international law. The new administration cannot wash its hands by saying sorry and letting them go. Many have nowhere to go anyway. Resettlement in the US (and probably Australia) would not appeal to most, for obvious reasons. Some of those who might want to, are probably still so traumatised that they could never fit in, even assuming that there were US communities with some sense of shame willing to embrace them, as they have embraced other former enemies. Whatever happens, the US and its allies, particularly its unthinking ones such as Australia, acquired a responsibility to settle them, and justly, from the moment it picked them up.