Civil Liberties

Kid Row

A new report has evidence that children under 16 are being held at Guantanamo Bay.
Once again, an astonishing report has had to surface in Britain on the behavior of the Bush Administration. And once again, U.S. media has ignored it.

Last Thursday, April 24, Britain's Guardian newspaper published a lead article by Washington reporter Oliver Burkeman. The first sentence speaks for itself:

"Children younger than 16 are being held as "enemy combatants" in the American detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. military admitted yesterday, a practice human rights groups condemned as repugnant and illegal."

Amazingly, the story did not even sink without a trace in the United States itself; it never existed. No network TV reporters hounded the White House. There was also no mention of it at all in the Washington Post, nor our country's alleged "newspaper of record," the New York Times. Americans never heard a word, raising a second issue: are American news reporters and editors bored with Afghanistan-related news ("That's so 2001!"), uninterested in airing reports that cast the Bush cabal or the U.S. military in a poor light, or simply numb to basic standards of human rights, human dignity, conduct in war, and/or legal jurisprudence the rest of the world takes for granted?

The problem, however, is that the so-called "enemy combatants" -- prisoners of war in all but the Bush Administration's duplicitous name -- at Cuba's Guantanamo Bay are not an old story. Prisoners have continued to be added, and facilities upgraded, ever since the American's initial foray into Afghanistan only 18 months ago. And in a "War on Terror" whose success relies in part on convincing the Muslim world of America's pure intentions, Guantanamo remains an open wound.

From the beginning, the U.S. removal of Afghan prisoners halfway around the world to a military base in Cuba -- outside American soil, where prisoners might remain untouched by American law -- has been a subject of intense controversy. Conditions at the hastily erected "Camp X-Ray," amidst Cuba's stifling (and, to prisoners, completely unfamiliar) tropical heat, were worse than brutal. Early on, the U.S. released photos of prisoners in humiliating positions, making a mockery of U.S. outrage over prisoner photos released by Saddam Hussein's doomed regime a few weeks ago. Allegations of torture and mistreatment multiplied and swarmed like tropical insects.

While the U.S. military learned from the early publicity and has since scrambled to assure the world that prisoners, now numbering 660, are treated well -- including the construction of a more permanent facility, Camp Delta, to house them -- prisoners' legal limbo and wretched fate remains. Of the 25 confirmed suicide attempts by Guantanamo prisoners, 15 have occurred this year. No attorney contact has been permitted. The detainees have been charged with no crime; while a system has been set up for trying Camp Delta inmates through military tribunals, none of the inmates has been named yet for the honor. They are not, according to the Bush Administration, prisoners of war; they are being held for their "intelligence value," or until they "no longer pose a threat." Since the government most of them fought for collapsed in 2001, Afghanistan has slid steadily toward a free-fire zone, all but Kabul carved up by feuding warlords; in such a situation, it's impossible to imagine that these men are a major factor or carry any further intelligence value. Such justifications are a semantic game used to excuse a human rights atrocity, and, to the Muslim world, yet another ongoing, highly visible example of the arrogance, brutality, and exemption from international codes of conduct the Americans wear like a well-loved coat.

Now comes word that at least three Camp Delta inmates are between the ages of 13 and 15, a practice in flagrant violation of, among many other things, the Geneva Convention (which the Bush Administration claims does not apply) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, among the world's 197 countries, including its most notorious human rights abusers, only the U.S. and Somalia have not ratified. The children have all arrived this year, joining a Canadian national, Omar al-Khadr, brought to Cuba last year and 15 at the time of his original capture. Canadian official have been trying unsuccessfully for months to gain access to him.

Naturally, the Bush Administration is in full spin mode, assuring the world once again that their kid inmates, like the others, are living in the lap of relative luxury. From the Guardian article:

"As soon as their ages were confirmed in medical tests, the children were moved to a `dedicated juvenile facility' at the camp, where they could socialise with each other, according to Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson, a spokesman at the base.

"`They are in a secure environment free from the influences of older detainees,' Lt. Col. Johnson said. `They are receiving specialist mental health care, in recognition of the difficult circumstances that child combatants go through, and some basic education in terms of reading and writing.' Efforts were under way to contact their home nations, he added."

The preposterousness of the notion that children whisked halfway around the world and imprisoned indefinitely, now isolated from contact with all other inmates save their two peers, are "receiving specialist mental health care in recognition of the difficult circumstances that child combatants go through" would be hilarious if it were not so sick. Children in war are in a horrible circumstance, but it is one these children probably grew up with. They did not grow up in an American prison.

But they may grow old there. And the question remains, here in the increasingly irrelevantly self-styled Land of the Free: why doesn't American media -- or its public -- seem to care?