Trials of the ‘war on terror’

What's driving the British reaction against Guantanamo Bay?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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The UK government has announced that it is discussing the repatriation of British terrorist suspects Feroz Abbasi and Moazzam Begg, held at Camp Delta in Cuba, who may now face a US military tribunal. This turnaround – the foreign office had ruled out the option of repatriation only five days ago (1) – was sparked by widespread outrage in Britain.

‘A travesty of justice’, cried the Daily Mail on 10 July. Blair faced a barrage of phone calls from politicians, and 200 MPs signed a Commons motion calling for the men to be given a fair trial. ‘Britain must challenge US lawlessness’, said a leader article in the Guardian newspaper. Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said that the two men faced a trial by a ‘kangaroo court presided over by the Pentagon’. The Economist labelled the terrorist tribunals as ‘Unjust, unwise, unAmerican’.

Of course, by legal standards, the trials are a disgrace. The men are being held in legal limbo, outside the protections of both US civil courts and the Geneva Convention, and have still not been formally charged. In their trial, military officers will act as judge, jury and persecution; the trial will be conducted in secrecy with permissive rules of evidence; and they could receive the death sentence.

But the British reaction has problems of its own. At a time when the moral authority for the US war in Iraq unravels by the day, the case of Abbasi and Begg offers an easy pedestal from which to bash those ‘cowboy’ Americans. It allows British commentators and politicians to pose as morally superior, as pillars of respectability and decency – without having to stand by any principles of their own.

This campaign to ‘send our boys home to face a fair trial’ is shot through with hypocrisy. Most of those who are now protesting, support the ‘war on terror’, including the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq. Many also supported the erosion of terrorist suspects’ legal rights in Britain under UK anti-terrorism legislation.

If you support the war on terror, it is difficult to object to the trial of terrorist suspects by military tribunal. It is normal practise to suspend many legal protections during wartime. When suspected German saboteurs were captured in New York in 1942, they were tried by a military tribunal and all were found guilty and most sentenced to death (2). In the Vietnam War, as many as 10,000 prisoners were held in Con Son Island Prison in the South China Sea, as part of the CIA’s ‘Phoenix Programme’ – and were indefinitely detained until dealt with by military tribunals (3). During the war in Northern Ireland, the British state refused to recognise IRA prisoners as prisoners of war.

War is, as the Prussian military historian Carl von Clausewitz argued, ‘the pursuit of politics by other means’ – not ‘the pursuit of law by other means’. If you supported the politics of the war in Northern Ireland or Vietnam, you generally supported the methods that were seen as necessary to obtain victory.

The war on terror, however, is a bit different. It is a war run by an American elite that seems to have a hazy and ever-changing idea of who the enemy are, and what it needs to do to catch them. It has been a war lacking in both convinced support, and strong opposition.

The USA is holding several hundred suspects, whom it claims are ‘the hardest of the hard’, in Bagram in Afghanistan and Camp Delta in Cuba. But the stories leaking out suggest that suspects can end up in these camps more by random misfortune than anything else. On 11 July, the Guardian reported the ‘bizarre chain of events’ that took two men from Gambia to Guantanamo Bay – the men were first told that there were irregularities with their papers, but it has been suggested that the flying and parachuting lessons taken by one of them might have aroused suspicion (4).

Detainees have borne the brunt of the American need for retribution after 9/11. While the USA failed to capture Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan or Saddam Hussein in Iraq – and now that the past and present of the Iraq war is quickly unravelling – captured suspects are one of the few definite results that America has to show for the past two years of war. Some might hope that a few guilty verdicts will show that the whole thing has not been a grasping at shadows.

But it was by the long road of the war on terror that these two British men ended up in the situation that they are today. There is little point in turning around and demanding that they be brought back to Britain now, without questioning how and why they got there in the first place.

There are even doubts whether the men could be lawfully handed over to the UK by the USA, as the USA has no jurisdiction in Guantanamo Bay so it would not be able to extradite them. And once in British courts, what could they be charged with? ‘Fighting for the Taliban against the Americans in Afghanistan would not be a terrorist act’, said Tim Owen QC, a leading criminal and human rights lawyer – although being a member of al-Qaeda might be a possible charge (5). And others have suggested that the extra-legal ways in which the men have been held and evidence obtained would require a British jury to throw their cases straight out.

As a campaign, ‘Free the British Two’, might make sense. ‘End the war on terror’ or ‘Free Camp Delta’ would make more sense. But ‘send Abbasi and Begg home for a fair trial’ makes no sense at all. Its appeal lies in the fact that it allows Britons with no principles to take the moral high-ground.

Stuck between the American desire for retribution after a faltering war, and the British desire to snipe at America, is certainly an uncomfortable place to be.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) UK seeks home trial for Cuba detainees, Guardian, 11 July 2003

(2) America responds to terrorism, Constitutional Rights Foundation

(3) Brown & Root Services, CovertAction Quarterly, Number 74, Fall 2002

(4) The UK businessmen trapped in Guantanamo, Guardian, 11 July 2003

(5) UK seeks home trial for Cuba detainees, Guardian, 11 July 2003

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Topics Politics


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