When President Barack Obama spoke in Cairo in his attempt to reach out to the Muslim world in 2009, he raised hopes of many of us. He created an anticipation of a turn to a new leaf in the book of US-Arab/Muslim relations. It was understood to be a break from the ‘you-are-either-with-us-or-against-us’ approach.
Even if there were many who had thought what they heard was too good to be true, considering the long-entrenched interests of the US in the Middle East, President Obama went on to become a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
For the first time, the peace prize was awarded based on a prospect of a perceived change agent for peace and not on what had been on his track record.
In his campaign for presidency, then Senator Obama had used rhetorical flourish and slogans that promised change, not just in Washington but in the ways of Washington. In between, it seems, however, Washington has changed Obama as political realities have seen him back-track or retreat from several policy battle fronts.
In at least two ways, President Obama has not only retreated from fight for human rights, but has actually deepened the human rights violations of the US across the world.
Firstly, regardless of the fact that Obama had made a pledge to close-down the infamous detention facility that has become a blot on the USA’s image of commitment to the respect of human rights, the facility at Guantanamo Bay remains open.
The detainees have over the past decade included those captured when they were under-age. Many have been held for years on end only to be unconditionally released without trial.
To avoid international legal inconveniences, the detainees are not called prisoners of war (POWs). To do so could have implied that they be accorded the treatment of POWs which is clearly defined in international conventions. Rather, they are termed ‘illegal enemy combatants.’
By using such a term, the US has been able to place the detainees in deplorable conditions worth condemning. Images of blindfolded detainees kneeling while shackled by wire cages have sparked outrage around the world.
Mistreatment of detainees has included the use of restraints, ear muffs, solitary confinement and face masks, leaving a spectre of dehumanization of suspected Taleban and al-Qaeda members.
Moazzam Begg is a well-recognised face of freed detainees of Guantanamo. He was never prosecuted even after he was held in solitary confinement for 2 years until 2005. In 2010, together with 8 other British ex-detainees, Begg won an out-of-court settlement with the British government. The ex-detainees had challenged the role of their government in the complicity of their suffering at the hands of the US authorities.
From a high of 779, the facility still had 171 detainees in January 2012, the 10th anniversary of detaining the so-called illegal enemy combatants.
For Begg, however, even if Guantanamo Bay will eventually close, it will only be symbolic as not all are released to freedom. Rather, they are sent to various countries where they remain prisoners, with little hope for liberty. The trauma people like Begg have suffered remains vivid as the experience was nothing short of a nightmare.
Only this month was there some talk about how the current 166 still in the cages of Camp X-Ray will be dealt with. Expectations remain lowered, however.
Secondly, perhaps even more vivid are the experiences of people living in Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia where routinely, the Obama Administration has continued President George W Bush’s extrajudicial killings using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) aka drones.
In February this year, in a rare revelation from US officials of what is supposed to be a state secret, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham declared to a gathering: “We’ve killed 4,700…”
Again, only this month, Obama affirmed that the US will continue to use drones in the global ‘War on Terror.’ It does not seem like there will be stopping of these deaths the US delivers from the skies.
Obama’s commitment to the use of drones prompted Imran Awan writing for the Guardian Online to argue that rather than being an instrument against terrorism, and contrary to what Obama might believe that he is rooting out terrorists, the drone attacks in Pakistan are also creating more radicals.
The origin of the mayhem is never a secret when rural farmers are hit and families have to gather scattered limbs of their loved ones. It is not a state secret when women and children are maimed and gruesome scenes are created at targets of remotely-controlled missile strikes.
This is not a fight for peace and security. It is state-sponsored violence that is inflicted amidst lowered standards of a rationale for outright warfare and yet plants seeds for more violence in the process.
During the three-country tour of Africa which will take Obama to our shores, he will be greeted with displays of pomp, ceremony and fanfare by the hosts for what he has achieved as a US president with roots from the continent.
However, the various planned protests in South Africa should be understood in the context of a human rights record for which no lesser mortals are dragged to the International Criminal Court or internationally isolated.
It is not be only South African trade unions or some ‘fringe peace activists on the left’ who have condemned Obama’s policies and his human rights record. International organisations too, such as the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have questioned the legality of the US use of drones.
In their annual review, Amnesty says: “Available information, limited by secrecy, indicated that US policy permitted extrajudicial executions in violation of international human rights law under the US’s theory of a ‘global war’ against Al Qaeda and associated groups”.
Obamas violations are acts within his power which he has done wilfully or has knowingly omitted with perilous and far-reaching consequences for innocent lives. The world cannot overlook these facts.