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Monday, January 26, 2009

Symbolizing Reality: The Humanity of Guantanamo Bay

The War on Terror has left some lasting international impressions about the United States’ foreign policy which liberals are hoping to reverse in order to gain favour in the international community. There is the ever present hope that President Barack Obama is able to alter the negative perception of US hard power in the international arena and replace it with an image of an America that abides by international laws and global democratic principles. In an effort to reign in positive international as well as domestic opinion, Obama has decided to execute an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay. Although on the surface this seems like a step in the right direction, one has to question the humanity of shutting down a glaring symbol of US cruelty.

Guantanamo stands for the anti-democratic principles which marked the Bush era from the get-go. Without a popular vote to get him into office, and a complete violation of international treaties that the US signed upon, the US had no right to market itself as a viable form of democracy. Violating the Geneva Conventions and then justifying those violations by manipulating the fear of the public is not democratic. It is downright Soviet. But democracy be damned, Bush era US foreign policy was borderline illegitimate. By closing down Guantanamo, the hope is that American foreign policy is able to project their influence into regions of the world without using the symbols that characterized the hard power era of Bush’s foreign policy.

However, closing Guantanamo Bay right away without a concrete and visible plan as to how the detainees will be handled was irresponsible of Obama. Of course it was an incredibly political decision. To market yourself as the anti-Bush will win you votes, but to act as the anti-Bush will win you international and domestic love. And Obama is soaking in that right now. But life for the Guantanamo detainee just got much harder. Without the constant public attention that they are getting, their plight as prisoners without fair access to the US legal system will go completely ignored. The fear is that these prisoners will be left in some other hole to die. But some things never change. If Obama gives the public the perception that he has moved away from Bush’s foreign policy, then that is all that matters to the American public. The detainees and those whose lives Guantanamo actually effects is left completely out of the picture. Those issues are not discussed by the public or the media, because closing the symbol of American cruelty, which at one point the American public sanctioned as necessary, will finally bring the American public the catharsis it so desperately craves. Out of sight and out of mind they say.

The situation on the home front is equally as bleak. Canadian foreign policy needs to address the issue of Omar Khadr, the Afghan-Canadian boy who is being detained because he allegedly threw a grenade that killed an American soldier on Afghani soil. With Obama’s upcoming visit to Canada, it will be interesting to see how this contentious issue will play out. The Canadian public elected Steven Harper because he was more in tune with Bush’s policies (albeit, he was elected when Bush was more favourable in the public eye). However, with the return of a more liberal-minded president, it will be vital to see as to whether Canadian public opinion of Harper will change, especially since Harper has been incredibly cautious as to how he approaches the issue of Omar Khadr. Canadian public opinion also seems to be split on this matter. Khadr has humanitarian support on the grounds that he is a Canadian citizen and should therefore be returned to Canadian soil. Many also believe that Khadr should not be able to return to Canada because of the suspicious circumstances of the Khadr’s residency in Canada. The Khadr’s were able to gain refugee status in Canada despite Mr. Khadr, Omar’s father, being linked to both Al Qaeda and having personal ties to Osama bin Laden. It is quite understandable for public opinion on the Khadr’s to be negative. Abusing the immigration system in Canada is sadly incredibly common, and I will be writing a post later on addressing this issue. Nonetheless, the Khadr case is a prime example of when politics fails the individual. Omar was just 15 at the time of his alleged killing of the American soldier. At 15, Omar would have been a child soldier, which effectively makes him a victim of circumstance under international law. Moreover, Canada is the only country to not bring home its nationals. I understand that Harper cannot afford politically to be coy with the press about the Khadr issue since a large contingent that votes for Harper feels that the Khadrs should not be in Canada. Despite these political barriers, Omar was just a boy. To take this political issue out on a 15 year old boy is a galling example that politics and humanity are distinctly separated and reconciling them is not only difficult, but sometimes downright impossible.

Foreign policy debates do not only focus on resources and abstract land masses known as states, but on individual human lives. Omar Khadr’s family may have immigrated under false pretences to Canada, but abandoning a 15 year old boy to punish the downfall of our lax immigration system is incredibly harsh. Furthermore, the circumstances in which he is getting charged for a war crime is ridiculous are well. American soldiers are inside Afghanistan to fight a war. American soldiers are going to come into contact with enemy combatants all the time, hence the war. When an enemy combatant inevitably strikes at you, as my professor so eloquently put it, “shit happens”.


AdviceMaven said...

Thanks for commenting on my blog. It's great to have the opportunity to check out other blogs and bloggers.

You write about politics in a very thought provoking way. You obviously chose the right major, and I'm looking forward to following your blog.

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