On 24 April 2013, Jane Ellison MP and 117,445 signatories secured a Private Members Debate in the Commons (Watch or Transcript). This was direct democracy in action, armed by MPs with a moral conscience. The e-petition, Return Shaker Aamer to the UK, had amassed over 100,000 signatures by the deadline of 20 April and a Minister from the Foreign office was being summoned before MPs some four days later. Green MP Caroline Lucas, who has been a notable presence throughout the campaign, perhaps put the most incisive questions and made the most telling remark of the day. Alistair Burt, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the FCO, was moved to defer a reply to Lucas’ specific questions to a written response later.
I found the statements of Burt breathtaking in their degree of obfuscation, prevarication and unclarity. Yet sadly insightful in the spinelessness which they betrayed of our government’s relationship to the US. How could a UK government be so hypocritical in its pretence of doing everything it could, whilst clearly doing nothing meaningful? Shaker Aamer, a man incarcerated for eleven years, without charge, tortured and now on hunger strike, has never seen his youngest child, since born in the UK. He has been cleared for release since 2007, as if the injustice up to that point was not grotesque enough.
Near the start of Burt’s statement, we hear the contention:
“It remains this government’s understanding that Mr Aamer has only ever been cleared for transfer and not release.”
But the UK acknowledges that Aamer wishes to be returned to the UK and they say that they are doing their utmost to realise this. What is the relevance of the distinction, in their view, between transfer and release? To where can a man be transferred without release? So does the UK maintain, now, contrary to their intention, that he should be transferred but remain elsewhere incarcerated? Worse still, here is a key passage of obfuscation and buck-passing by Burt (my emphasis):
“The 2011 National Defence Authorisation act, all but precluded transfers out of Guantanamo Bay. This legislation was renewed by the US government in 2012 in largely the same terms. However, it allowed the US secretary of defence to exercise a waiver should stringent conditions be met. Despite our best endeavours Mr Aamer was not released in 2012. Indeed no detainees were released from Guantanamo Bay in 2012. The National Defence Authorisation act was renewed in January 2013. All Guantanamo Bay detainees cleared for transfer or release now require a waiver under the act before they can be transferred or released from the detention facility, regardless of their destination country. The British Government continues to work with US counterparts to consider the implications of the NDA 2013 for Mr Aamer’s release. Notwithstanding this, any decision regarding Mr Aamer’s release ultimately remains with the United States government.”
“All but precluded”? What does that mean? Unfortunately, in standard English, contexts sometimes dictate that the opposite of what is said is meant in using such an expression. But what was meant, here, that transfers were precluded or that they were not? Taken literally, it means that transfers were not precluded, ie. they were allowed. But what follows seems to imply that anything but transfers were allowed. Could the logjam in release be the result of a misunderstanding about what the act says, or in what others understand by what is said? Lucas surely gave relief to the frustration of all in the audience when she intervened:
“In this debate which is becoming increasingly Kafkaesque, it’s like some kind of nightmare. But he can at least tell us whether he knows why the US won’t release him? It’s one thing not being able to tell us. But can he tell us that he knows why and can he give us any indication of what his assessment is of what the US are telling him?”
Burt then answers:
“Going into that here, understandable though it would be, to Parliament, I have to say, as an intelligence matter, which previous Governments would understand very well, and were dealing with in exactly the same terms, I believe, is not a detail I can go into.”
How many qualifications in this statement? Let’s hear it again:
“Going into that here [qualifcation 1], understandable though it would be [qualification 2], to Parliament [qualification 3], I have to say [qualification 4], as an intelligence matter [qualifcation 5], which previous Governments would understand very well [qualifcation 6], and were dealing with in exactly the same terms [qualifcation 7], I believe [qualification 8], is not a detail I can go into.”
Basically, Burt is staying Stumm. It’s not a detail he can, or wants to, go into. Not only can’t he tell us what he knows, he can’t tell us that he knows. Lucas’ challenge remains unanswered. The pretence of revealing something to us is really just an exercise in concealment; a weapon of mass concealment.
The surest sign that right reason is under threat is the assertion made by Burt, without a hint of irony, that the fact that the UK thought Aamer’s continued incarceration “wrong” was “inconsequential”.
How can injustice be inconsequential?