Saying it was damaging to US interests to keep holding prisoners in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay, US President Barack Obama renewed an old vow on Tuesday to close the camp, where about 100 inmates are on hunger strike to protest against their years in detention without trial.
Human rights groups welcomed Obama’s recommitment to shutting the prison. However, some activists called for action, not just words, and said the president could take some steps on his own without hitting congressional obstacles.
“It’s not sustainable — I mean, the notion that we’re going to continue to keep over 100 individuals in a no-man’s land in perpetuity,” Obama said.
“Guantanamo is not necessary to keep America safe,” he added. “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counterterrorism efforts. It is a recruitment tool for extremists. It needs to be closed.”
Obama lamented the “status quo,” which has kept most prisoners in detention without trial or charge since the prison was set up at the US naval base in Cuba in 2002 to hold foreign terrorism suspects.
Obama, who repeatedly pledged to close the camp when he was campaigning for a first term and after he first took office in 2009, put the blame on the US Congress for his failure to make good on his promise and said he would re-engage with lawmakers on the issue.
The US military has said that 21 prisoners are being force-fed liquid meals through tubes inserted in their noses. Forty medical personnel have been sent to reinforce the military’s existing teams at the prison to deal with the hunger strike.
Several inmates have given harrowing accounts of force-feeding and the practice has been criticized by rights groups, and also by the American Medical Association.
On Thursday, the president of the association sent a letter to US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reiterating the association’s position that it is a violation of medical ethics to force-feed mentally competent adults who refuse food and life-saving treatment.
Asked about the force-feeding, Obama defended it, saying: “I don’t want these individuals to die.”
While Obama acknowledged an uphill fight and provided few specifics on how to overcome legal and political obstacles, White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden later said he was weighing a range of options.
Meanwhile, Obama on Tuesday warned against a rush to judgement on chemical weapons in Syria, but said proof of their use would trigger a “rethink” of his reluctance to use military force.
As critics complain that he let Syria cross a US “red line,” Obama said Washington believed chemical weapons had been used in the country’s civil war, but did not know exactly who had fired them.
At a White House news conference, Obama also appeared to set the criteria for a US military intervention as established proof that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime directly ordered the use of chemical weapons.
Obama faced the press amid rising political pressure over reports by US intelligence that Syrian forces used sarin gas against rebel forces, despite his previous warnings that deploying chemical weapons would be a “game changer.”
“I’ve got to make sure I’ve got the facts. That’s what the American people would expect,” Obama said. “If I can establish in a way that not only the United States, but also the international community, feel confident in the use of chemical weapons by the [al-]Assad regime, then that is a game changer.”
“By game changer, I mean we would have to rethink the range of options that are available to us. There are options that are available to me that are on the shelf right now that we have not deployed, and that’s a spectrum of options,” Obama said.
He added that he had asked the Pentagon for plans, but did not divulge them.