Twenty years after Guantánamo Bay detention operations commenced on January 11, 2002, a new report assesses the massive costs of US unlawful transfers, secret detention, and torture after the September 11, 2001, attacks. The report, from the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute and Human Rights Watch, outlines how these abuses trample on the rights of victims and suspects, create a burden to US taxpayers, and damage counterterrorism efforts worldwide, ultimately jeopardizing universal human rights protections for everyone.
“Around the world, Guantánamo remains one of the most enduring symbols of the injustice, abuse, and disregard for the rule of law that the US unleashed in response to the 9/11 attacks,” said Letta Tayler, an associate Crisis and Conflict director at Human Rights Watch and the report’s co-author. “The US government’s reliance on deeply flawed military commissions, along with other due process failures, has not only violated the rights of the men held at Guantánamo. It also has deprived survivors of the September 11 attacks and families of the dead of their right to justice.”
The report notes that:
- The US has held no one accountable for the CIA orchestrating a system of undisclosed “black sites” throughout the world in which it secretly detained at least 119 Muslim men and tortured at least 39.
- The US has largely resisted accountability for abuses at its military prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it detained thousands of Muslims including several women and boys, and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
- The US military is still detaining 39 Muslim men at Guantánamo, 27 of them without criminal charges, and judicial proceedings are so flawed that none of the five 9/11 suspects have been brought to trial. The prisoners are among at least 780 foreign Muslim men and boys whom the US has held at Guantánamo since January 11, 2002.
- The US has spent more than $5.48 trillion on the “War on Terror” including $540 million a year just to detain prisoners at Guantánamo.
- While unlawful US detentions have gradually ebbed, civilian deaths and injuries from US-led strikes in the “War on Terror” skyrocketed under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump, also without accountability.
The “extraordinary renditions” (unlawful transfers from one country to another), secret detentions, and torture have damaged the international human rights system, Tayler and her co-author, Elisa Epstein, said. By committing abuses with impunity, the US has made it easier for countries such as Russia, Egypt, and China to criticize Washington and deflect international condemnation of their own human rights violations.
US counterterrorism partners have replicated the Guantánamo model by detaining thousands of people in dire conditions in Iraq, northeast Syria, Nigeria, Egypt, and elsewhere for alleged terrorism offenses. Those detained, often without charge or trial, include civil society members, suspects’ relatives, and children who are victims of armed groups.
The report also cites instances in which unlawful rendition and detention and torture have undermined US security goals. The Islamic State (ISIS) and other armed groups have used US abuses as a propaganda tool to lure recruits and bolster their narrative that Washington and its Western allies are waging a crusade against Muslims.
The authors call on the Biden administration to close the Guantánamo prison and enact significant legal and policy reforms to end further abuses. Reforms should include far greater transparency about crimes that US forces committed and accountability at the highest levels, as well as robust efforts to address religious, racial, and ethnic bias in counterterrorism efforts.
“This report lays out a comprehensive assessment of the many unconscionable costs of US torture and illegal detentions and renditions of Muslims over the past 20 years since 9/11,” said Stephanie Savell, co-director of the Costs of War Project. “This is a moral failure of epic proportions, a stain on the nation’s human rights record, a strategic blunder, and an abhorrent perpetuation of Islamophobia and racism.”
This report is the latest resource from the Costs of War project, housed at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. The project was launched by a group of scholars and experts to document the costs of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.