Amnesty International: A campaign to close the Guantanamo Bay military detention centres

Read the account of a campaign of huge significance to the world we live in today. Then go back to the Chariot and see how Amnesty built a tactical network of campaign routes and note particularly how Amnesty drew on influential audiences to progress their cause. At the outset of their campaign, Amnesty admit they had no idea how they could build the public support needed to achieve their vision. Their approach was bold, dynamic, reactive and founded on passionately held values, backed by rigorous research.

Sarah Burton, Amnesty International's Campaigns Director explains how the organisation set about campaigning for the closure of the US Military Detention Centre at Guantanamo Bay

The Amnesty campaign to close the military detention centres at Guantanamo Bay began as a response to world events post 9/11. The US, one of the world's most mature democracies had responded to the World Trade Centre attack by totally stripping people of their rights built up over past 40 years. Prisoners, some taken from the battlefields of Afghanistan, (who should have been treated as POWs and therefore subject to the protection afforded by the relevant Geneva Conventions) others sold to US forces by local War Lords, including children, were shipped to Guantanamo, not to face charges but to face torture and interrogation, with no end in sight. These people were being held incommunicado and subjected to sub human treatment. What were they being accused of?. No one knew, least of all themselves. Guantanamo was the most visible tip of what turned out to be a concerted programme of secret and illegal detentions. It was the Amnesty membership which first proposed, indeed they demanded the campaign (Amnesty is a membership organisation and its membership play a significant role in determining the organisation's campaigning agenda.)

Amnesty had been instrumental in building the International Convention against Torture and its membership saw the activities of the US at Guantanamo as undermining the Convention that had taken so many years to establish. The campaign itself began with the Amnesty Seceretary General denouncing Guantanamo, calling it the gulag of our time at the launch of Amnesty's Annual Report, an event which attracts international media attention. The statement was immediately picked up by the world's press and it became headline news. In many ways our Secretary General's statement about Guantanamo propelled us into the campaign.

At first there was no clear focus on how we were going to work on Guantanamo. In human rights cases there are always 50 things you could go for, so many possible different campaign angles of attack, so how should we focus and what should we do was a big issue for us right at the beginning. We needed to think about what sort of people could we engage to fight with us for the rights of people who may have been involved in acts of terrorism - acts which themselves violated the human rights of others. But from an Amnesty perspective, from a human rights perspective, you don't trade the rights of one set of people against the rights of others. One of our founding principles is that we are absolutely neutral, we never take sides. We are only for human rights. We exist purely to promote and defend the principles and Articles of the UN Human Rights Convention.

It was very difficult to begin with to engage a terrorised public many of whom frankly didn't care what happened to those accused of terrorist acts. This was a big hurdle to cross. Should these detainees have rights if they had destroyed the rights of others, was a popular question at the time.

Amnesty looked at 3 different ways States were violating rights. We recognised that we needed to broaden the issue of the rights of so called enemy combatants so that we had more to talk about than just Guantanamo. We needed to create the right context so that the campaign itself was pro-rights and not just anti-one particular place where rights were being ignored and violated. We also looked at how specific organisations were involved in systematic rights violations. We focused on secret flights and on events including torture and homicide which had taken place at the Bagram Theatre Internment Facility in Afghanistan. But to contrast this, and this was very important for our emerging strategy, where terrorist suspects were being treated properly, for example were given fair trials, we showcased these examples. In Spain, for example, those accused of the Madrid commuter train bombings (where 191 people were killed and over 1700 injured in 2004) stood trial in open court. Therefore why shouldn't those being accused of similar crimes in Guantanamo be charged with those crimes and stand trial in a court of law? We show cased so far as possible examples of how to respond to acts of terrorism while respecting human rights. At the same time, we managed to build up images and stories from Guantanamo, of hunger strikes and force feeding for example. Amnesty put its researchers on to the case but we also worked in partnership with organisations such as Reprieve and the Centre for Constitutional Rights in the US and other humanitarian and legal organisations in Egypt and Pakistan. We met families of detainees and over time some of the detainees who had been released from Guantanamo. Through their families and their lawyers we took their stories to our members, who began to act on behalf of the individuals trapped there.

Some of the stories emerging from Guantanamo were heart breaking, but at that time we couldn't engage public interest in them beyond the close network of Amnesty supporters and sympathisers. We set out to address this by looking for influential individuals in politics and the arts as well as religious leaders to make them aware of what we knew was going on in Guantanamo. We wanted to engage people who were able to reach a wider public audience but also those who would be most influential in an instrumental fashion, so we focussed on religious leaders both from Islam and the Christian communities.

The influence of the religious right in the US with the Administration was very significant. By focussing on to the moral issues we could move the debate from legal standards to simple matters of right and wrong. Once we managed to do this we could then begin to engage wider public audiences with their hearts. This is always hugely important in campaigns., to be able to do this. Moral communities do not like their governments engaging in what they can blatantly see are immoral acts on their behalf. This was the key to opening up the debate on Guantanamo in the States.

When we started out on this campaign we could see all the difficulties and risks in trying to win public sympathy. Amnesty traditionally never takes sides. It began with helping prisoners of conscience. But here we were dealing with what the public saw as the very opposite of prisoners of conscience. It was a very difficult balancing act for Amnesty to get its messaging on this right.

As is usually the case in campaigning we gained confidence and found our positive track by winning! The first breakthrough came from our own research on extraordinary rendition, which is really another term for state kidnapping. People were being spirited away to secret locations for illegal interrogations and to be tortured. We tracked CIA flights and issued a report. The report indicated the numbers involved and most likely destinations. This created a big stir, coming as it did on the back of increasingly critical media cover of the Iraq War and how it began. On its publication, the report got lots of media attention and there was immediate response particularly in Spain and Ireland. In Spain, the Parliament ordered an inquiry and the government was forced to admit that it had misled Parliament about some of the facts about detainees being rendered. This had the effect of proving that at least some of what Amnesty was saying was demonstrably true. But it was the political responses of European Governments that really took us on to our next step along the campaign ladder.

I remember at that time the Amnesty Secretary General being interviewed live on BBC World News with a US Administration Official who was attacking the Amnesty report on one satellite screen and on another, a spokesperson from the Council of Europe who was supporting what Amnesty had done, and I thought, this is exactly where we need to be now, politically. In campaigning it is these political responses that open the door to further moves that otherwise would not have been possible. Amnesty was now seen to be speaking the truth very authoritatively, and then stepping back and leaving the people in power to deal with what we had revealed. This was also a strategically important move.

The media now were alive to the issue and pursuing their own investigations and through that we now had another way of talking about Guantanamo. So it became progressively easier to attract influential support for the general cause of the violation the human rights of those accused of terrorism, because it was no longer just Amnesty saying things.. We issued a further series of related reports which helped build a general case within which we could situate the specific Guantanamo story.

On top of campaigning to close European airspace to extraordinary rendition flights we were also by 2006 trying to stop European countries sending detainees back to other countries which practiced torture on the basis of Diplomatic Assurances which were designed to protect the specific individuals but which de facto acknowledged and accepted that torture of others in these countries would continue. For this angle of the campaign, we focussed on the UK for at that time, under the Blair government, the UK was entering into a lot of these agreements with countries like Egypt, Algeria and Saudi Arabia where torture is common and wide spread. We highlighted these practices to create moral outrage among the broader UK community, the more so by showing that these states were using the UK's tacit endorsement of their interrogation practices as a form of legitimisation and approval of what they were doing. We evidenced all of this. The same holds true for the very stringent anti terrorist laws being brought through in the UK, that these were also being used by other countries to legitimise their practices which violated prisoner or suspect's human rights.. In these cases we did lots of work showing that the torturing states were relying on UK and other states with previously good human rights records to uphold their repressive practices. We didn't have to make judgements about all this, instead we used it as evidence to put before the audiences we wanted to reach.

We wanted to reach lawyers and judges who were working on deportation cases. We wanted to stop the practice of deportation under Diplomatic Assurance as a guarantee against torture. The big success here was to get the point established within the European Court of Human rights that you couldn't trade off rights. The UK had sought to argue that a slight risk of torture for a small number of people was acceptable where it was done in the name of enhanced security for many more people. Winning that argument against the UK position in the European Court of course had immediate influence right across Europe and it also allowed us to lift out judicial comments and use these in our approaches to political leaders in other countries, using what the European Court or House of Lords had said.

Then, in the UK, a Lord Justice of Appeal called Guantanamo a legal black hole. This was something Amnesty could never have said on its own, but we could and did use this senior Judge's quote. So we campaigned using the quotes from other influential people who were calling for Guantanamo to be closed. We were no longer by that time so much leading that call, but embracing a wider and more influential call for the same end.

Once we had sufficient groundswell of opinion, then even President Bush of the US felt he had to agree, that Guantanamo should be shut and that more generally people should be treated fairly. Our analysis was never that President Bush would close Guantanamo that would be too much of an admission of wrong doing, but we did analyse that we could create the public space for the next administration to be comfortable with the idea of closure, especially with the and then what work we carried out. We needed to establish what would be acceptable after closure treatment for all of Guantanamo's inmates in terms of where they would be sent, fair and open trials and so on. We also began researching and reporting on other sites in other countries around the world where so called war on terror detainees are being held without rights, that they should fall under the same standards, that inmates would be given safe return, open trials etc.. By working on these scenarios ahead of formal commitment to close Guantanamo we created the means for our aim to come true. We are now researching these other sites and advocating for access by Red Cross and other human rights organisations and lawyers. We built a 12 point plan around these points and sought to have the document endorsed by Paliamentarians from around the world. So far we have over 1300 endorsements. We then brought this document to the US and into meetings with House and Senate leaders. We had also been running a campaign within the US and through these moves now have the three front runners for the Presidency each agreed to close Guantanamo if elected, and one of whom has agreed to full restoration of habeas corpus for those detainees (currently denied these rights in the US). Certainly they were pressured into this, but equally important they were made comfortable with the idea of closing Gunatanamo because the way forward was well mapped out for them and they could see that closing Guantanamo would help to distance themselves from the current administration which has done so much damage to America's good name across the globe.