Canada Almost Alone in Supporting Guantanamo

posted on March 07, 2006 | in Category International | PermaLink

Original author: Paul Koring Source: The Globe and Mail URL: [link] Date: March 4, 2006 Major Western allies push for closing U.S. gulag after damning UN report

Washington - As most major Western allies stridently demand the closing of the U.S. Caribbean gulag at Guantanamo Bay, Canada's conspicuous silence remains a rare exception. British, French, German and Italian leaders have all pushed for Guantanamo's closing in recent weeks after a damning UN report that found it falling far short of meeting international standards of justice. Calls for shutting down Guantanamo have since echoed around the globe. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says close it. So does Louise Arbour, a former Canadian Supreme Court judge who heads the UN Human Rights Commission. The Bush administration's policy of holding detainees in secret and offshore prisons and shipping them to third countries has "an acutely corrosive effect on the global ban on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment," she said.In Ottawa, Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Marie-Christine Lilkoff said the government understands the need for Guantanamo. "Canada is sensitive to the need to ensure that persons who are a danger to international peace and security not be provided with the opportunity to resume a direct part in hostilities or re-engage in terrorist activity," she said in a written response to questions.

The government declined to provide a direct answer as to whether it wants the camp closed.

International human-rights organizations and international notables such South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who called the camp a "stain" on U.S. democracy, have said Guantanamo must be closed.

But neither the new Conservative government in Ottawa nor its previous Liberal governments seem troubled by the sprawling detainee camps at the U.S. naval base in Cuba.

Not only has there been no Canadian demand for it to close, but Canada's special-forces units in Afghanistan continue to hand terrorism suspects over to U.S. forces who ship at least some of them to Guantanamo.

"Canada's silence on Guantanamo is related to the fact that we are complicit in the whole process" of seizing and holding suspects "in a twilight zone," NDP defence spokesman Bill Blaikie said yesterday. "This is typical of the way both the Liberals and Conservatives have handled the whole issue of Guantanamo," instead of joining with other governments and calling for its closing, he added in an interview from Winnipeg.

The lawyer for the sole Canadian detainee in Guantanamo, Muneer Ahmad, was equally scathing about Ottawa's position.

"Canada should be doing everything in its power to defend its citizens and especially its child citizens" in Guantanamo, said Mr. Ahmad, lawyer for Omar Khadr, who was only 15 years old when he killed a U.S. medic in a gunfight in Afghanistan. Mr. Khadr faces murder charges because the Bush administration has deemed him an unlawful combatant.

(Bowing to a court order, the Pentagon released thousands of documents yesterday, identifying for the first time some but not all detainees held at Guantanamo, The Associated Press reported.)

Unflinching, the Bush administration insists Guantanamo is vital and its detractors naive and misguided.

"Every once in a while someone pops up and gets some press for saying, 'Oh, let's close Guantanamo Bay.' Well, if someone has a better idea, I'd like to hear it," said Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Defence Secretary and ultimately Guantanamo's chief warden. "The idea that you could just open the gates and say, 'Gee, fellows, you're all just wonderful' is not realistic," he said after the UN report was issued. "There's no torture. There's no abuse. It's being handled honourably." Mr. Rumsfeld added.

Few see it that way.

"Guantanamo is an embarrassment," France's ambassador to the United States said.

Yet amid the rising chorus of international condemnation and demands for closing the prison, even from some of the Bush administration's closest allies, Canada seems determined to stay astride the fence.

"We also note that the suggestion to close Guantanamo Bay has already been raised by some lawmakers in the USA, as well as by other government leaders," Ms. Lilkoff wrote, in a reply that took more than 24 hours to draft and was approved at the highest levels.

"The report will further stimulate these debates, which we hope will lead to constructive recommendations for sustainable solutions."

Germany's new conservative Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who, like Prime Minister Stephen Harper, took office promising better relations with Washington, hasn't shied away from denouncing Guantanamo, where 500 men, mostly Muslims, have languished without charge -- many of them in solitary confinement -- for years. "Guantanamo can and should not exist in the longer term," Ms. Merkel said.

Italian Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi, a staunch Bush ally, told the President that Guantanamo should be immediately shut down. "One should move with maximum speed toward closing down these centres where incidents condemned by the whole world have occurred," he said just before a White House visit two weeks ago.

Even Britain's Prime Minster Tony Blair, considered the Bush administration's most loyal and valuable ally, has refused to allow British citizens to be held there or face the controversial -- some say Draconian and unfair -- military tribunals set up to try terrorism suspects.

Standing up for British citizens hasn't hurt Mr. Blair in Washington. "The reason there are no Britons left in Guantanamo is because the British government stood up for them," Mr. Ahmad said, adding that he found Ottawa's unwillingness to do the same to be inexplicable.

"It's a questions of political will," he said.

Mr. Blair's outspoken wife, Cherie Booth, pushed even further this week. Without explicitly naming Guantanamo, she issued a thinly veiled condemnation of U.S. treatment of detainees and especially of controversial interrogation methods:

"The terrorism of the state [is] usually practised for the same reasons that terrorists use violence: to break the will of those they cannot persuade by lawful means."

At home, as well as abroad, Guantanamo is increasingly seen as a blunder sullying the U.S. reputation.

"The best thing that the United States could do for our own reputation and for justice in the world and for the honouring of human rights is to shut down Guantanamo Bay prison, as was recommended by the United Nations," former president Jimmy Carter said.

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