In November 2019, I arrived at the gates of Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh in South East London. Since 2001, the UK government has run Belmarsh as the “British Guantanamo Bay,” detaining prisoners without charge on trial on the basis of extraordinary anti-terror laws passed in the course of the “war on terror.” Two decades later, neither Guantanamo nor Belmarsh have closed. On the contrary, it is at Belmarsh that the UK government today imprisons the man who dared to reveal the crimes of the war on terror, the man I came to meet on that late autumn day in 2019: Julian Assange.
It has been ten years since WikiLeaks began publishing the “Guantanamo Files,” documenting the detention and torture of prisoners by the United States government at its prison on Cuba’s occupied east coast. But the architects and administrators of the Guantanamo Bay torture camp today walk free. Instead, the journalists, whistleblowers, and publishers have been sent to prison. Assange has now spent over a thousand days in solitary confinement at Belmarsh as the UK courts debate his extradition to face a 175-year prison sentence in the United States.
The Belmarsh Tribunal — which sits today for its third session — turns the tables on the Assange extradition case. On the twentieth anniversary of Guantanamo Bay’s opening, the Progressive International is bringing witnesses from around the world to give testimony to the crimes of the war on terror when no court of law will hear them.
In this way, the Belmarsh Tribunal takes up the tradition of the people’s tribunal. A half-century ago, philosopher Bertrand Russell and French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre established the International War Crimes Tribunal to examine the Vietnam War, as the United States sought to sweep its atrocities away from public view. “Our purpose is to establish, without fear or favor, the full truth about this war. We sincerely hope that our efforts will contribute to the world’s justice, to the re-establishment of peace and the liberation of oppressed peoples,” they wrote in 1966.
The Russell-Sartre Tribunal was not mere political theater, as the fierce opposition it faced among US allies attests. Its first session was set to meet in Paris, but the French government rejected it on the basis of members like Vladimir Dedijer, a Yugoslav partisan fighter who led the country’s postwar delegation to the United Nations. France’s Charles de Gaulle may have opposed the war in Vietnam, but the tribunal promised too much humiliation for its US ally.
In Sartre’s original letter to President de Gaulle, dated April 13, 1967, he reflects on the president’s refusal to grant a visa to Dedijer as the presiding figure of the tribunal. De Gaulle claimed that “all justice in its inception and in its execution belongs only to the State.” Noting the cruel absence of justice for the victims of the war in Vietnam, Sartre answered that de Gaulle was avoiding speaking to a writer and not to the president of a tribunal he does not wish to recognize. De Gaulle, Sartre said, hoped to avoid a further confrontation with the United States. But “paradoxically, the trouble they are making for us lends legitimacy to our tribunal, and shows besides, they are afraid of us.”
Why were they afraid of the Russell-Sartre Tribunal? “Because we are bringing up a problem — the problem of war crimes — which no Western government wants to see brought up; because they all want, once again, to reserve the right to commit them.”
Fifty years later, Western governments still reserve the right to commit war crimes. Some of these crimes have been committed in plain sight: newly declassified footage shows a drone strike in Afghanistan killing ten innocent civilians, including seven children. Others have been unearthed by brave journalists and whistleblowers: Collateral Murder, published by WikiLeaks in 2012, shows the brutal murder of two Reuters journalists and a number of Iraqis killed by a US military helicopter’s heedless fire.
The sum total of these crimes is the devastation of an entire region. According to a recent report, at least 38 million people have been displaced from eight countries where the US military has engaged its war on terror: Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Philippines, Libya, and Syria.
But there has been no justice for this devastation. De Gaulle wanted us to believe that “all justice in its inception and in its execution belongs only to the State.” In the case of the war on terror, however, the state has used its authority to prosecute only those brave journalists and whistleblowers that have sought justice in its absence.
It is against this inversion of justice that the Belmarsh Tribunal sits now, bringing together whistleblowers like Steven Donziger, diplomats like Guillaume Long, and former Guantanamo detainees like Mohamedou Ould Slahi. Slahi spent fifteen years in Guantanamo without charge or trial, tortured by the notorious “enhanced interrogation techniques” approved by Donald Rumsfeld. “American people deserve better than Guantanamo Bay,” Slahi told the tribunal.
Professor Noam Chomsky, who also joined the tribunal today, noted the importance of its timing to the anniversary of Guantanamo Bay’s opening:
Twenty years ago, [George W.] Bush’s administration turned Guantanamo into one of the world’s most horrendous torture chambers still holding brutalized victims without charges. Information about all these was provided to the American and the world public by WikiLeaks. Those are the crimes that cannot be forgiven as power begins to evaporate when exposed to sunlight.
As the world once again prepares for war, this sunlight has never been more necessary. Because the crimes of the war on terror — from Iraq to Guantanamo Bay — are not just crimes against the individual victims targeted by their perpetrators. They are an attack on the concept of justice itself: a thin thread that gives meaning to democracy in the United States as everywhere around the world.
Today, on the twentieth anniversary of Guantanamo, we demand: Close Guantanamo. Free Assange. Justice to all victims of the war machine.