On Jan. 20, I woke up with a certain sense of hope. And in the midst of a global economic crisis, a dodgy time for Canadian politics, and a general malaise in most office buildings, hope is not exactly bursting forth at every corner. I, along with practically everyone on the planet, watched Barack Obama stumble through his oath of office and then set forth his vision for a new America. It wasn’t a flowery speech but I thought quite powerful. He seems under no illusion that times ahead will be tough and he has a difficult job to do.
But for me, the following section stood out in his speech: “As for our common defence, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.” Amen to that.
On Jan. 21, I woke up to the news that President Obama had already started to bring back the rule of law where it seemed to have been lost. One of the first actions Obama took, seemingly while dancing the night away at inaugural balls in Washington, was to order prosecutors in the ongoing trials in Guantanamo Bay to request a 120-day hiatus on proceedings. By the early morning, the temporary stays were in place.
They are not a solution to the problem of Guantanamo, one of the most obvious signs of the previous U.S. administration’s apparent disregard for international law and human rights. But, 120 days will give the new administration a chance to figure what the best, as shall we hazard to say, lawful way to deal with the detainees and the troublesome military commissions that are trying some of them.
Families of some of the Sept. 11 victims were up in arms about the delay but chances are the trials of the alleged conspirators in that terrorist attack will not simply be set free. It’s incumbent upon Obama’s administration to figure out a way to try them and also uphold the democratic and legal traditions of its “forebears.” Already established military and even civilian criminal courts have the capacity to deal with these cases and respect legal processes.
Canada is also affected by the decision to halt the trials. Omar Khadr, while many Canadians might not hold him in high regard, is a Canadian citizen and the only westerner still in Guantanamo. His trial is underway and testimony from an FBI agent just days before the inauguration further highlighted concerns that the military commissions do not meet the standards for fair trials.
For the first time, on Jan. 21, the Canadian government said it would consider changing its stance on trying to bring Khadr home to be dealt with under the Canadian justice system. So far, the Harper government has refused to act while there’s an “ongoing process” underway in Guantanamo. Now there’s not really a process underway.
The Associated Press reports the president will issue the order for Guantanamo to be shut down within a year. That would be one giant step in returning the U.S. to its ideals that respect human rights and the rule of law. There are still more to be taken.