[Azadeh Dastyari is a Lecturer in the Faculty of Law at Monash University and an Associate of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law.]
US President Barack Obama has stated that Guantánamo Bay is “a symbol around the world for an America that ﬂouts the rule of law”. He was referring to the imprisonment of non-citizens in the ‘war on terror’ in the US Naval base that has garnered unprecedented international attention and has been the subject of much scholarship. The same quotation is also applicable to the much less known detention of refugees in the US Naval base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Under its Migrant Interdiction Program, the US intercepts sea vessels outside US waters and returns home individuals who are not authorized to enter the US. A very small percentage (less than 0.6% between 1996 and 2013) of the individuals intercepted at sea are identified by the US Coast Guard as having a credible fear of persecution or torture, and are transferred to Guantánamo Bay for further processing. In Guantánamo Bay, they are interviewed by a US Asylum Officer to determine if they have a well-founded fear of persecution (are refugees) or are more likely than not to be tortured if repatriated.
There are significant shortcomings with status determinations in Guantánamo Bay that place the US at risk of violating its non-refoulement obligations under Article 33(1) of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) and Article 3 of the Convention gainst Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The US does not provide individuals being interviewed access to legal counsel, the UNHCR or any other group or NGO. This may leave protection seekers unable to articulate their protection needs and thus fail to have their protected status recognized. The US also fails to provide any independent review of status determinations. Such a review would provide an additional safeguard against mistakes and assist in ensuring that no refugee or individual owed protection under Article 3 of the CAT is wrongly repatriated.
All individuals transferred to Guantánamo Bay under the US interdiction program are detained at the Migrant Operation Center. Detainees are separated into three categories: (i) individuals who are found not to have protection needs are labelled ‘non-protect migrants’ and are repatriated; (ii) asylum seekers whose status has not yet been determined are labelled ‘undetermined migrants’; and (iii) asylum seekers who have had their refugee status recognized by an Asylum Officer are labelled ‘protected migrants’ (as are individuals who are assessed as being more likely than not to be tortured if repatriated).
Individuals in the ‘protected migrants’ category remain in Guantánamo Bay until a third country can be found for their resettlement, which may take months or even years. It is also worth noting the US government’s insistence on using the term ‘migrants’ when referring to people it has recognised as refugees in Guantánamo Bay. This stems in part from the US’ denial that its obligations under the Refugee Convention extend to its exercise of jurisdiction in Guantánamo Bay. The US views any protection it offers against refoulement to individuals at the Migrant Operation Center a gratuitous humanitarian act rather than what it truly is: the fulfilment of the US’ international legal obligations.
Immigration detention in Guantánamo Bay violates the US’ obligation to refrain from arbitrary detention under Article 9(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In A v Australia, the Human Rights Committee considered the legality of Australia’s policy of mandatory immigration detention and stated that the factors necessitating detention must be ‘particular to the individual’ in order for it not to be characterized as arbitrary. In A v Australia Australia’s policy of mandatory immigration detention was found to be arbitrary because the reasons given for the detention (unlawful entry and fears of the detainee absconding if free) were not particular to the detainee in question. As with Australia’s policy of mandatory immigration detention, individuals transferred to Guantánamo Bay under the US interdiction program are subject to arbitrary detention because no assessment is made of the individual circumstances of each detainee and no alternatives to detention are considered.
Closely related to Article 9(1) of the ICCPR is Article 9(4) of the ICCPR. The Human Rights Committee has interpreted Article 9(4) to mean that detainees must have a right to appeal their detention in a court to determine the legality of the detention. Furthermore, a court reviewing detention must be empowered to order the release of the detainee if there is a violation of Article 9(1) of the ICCPR. The Committee has found that review of detention which is ‘limited to mere compliance of the detention with domestic law’ does not satisfy the requirements of Article 9(4) of the ICCPR.
The US Supreme Court has recently confirmed that non-citizens held in Guantánamo Bay must have access to the writ of habeas corpus. As such, immigration detainees should now have a right to appeal their detention in a US court to determine the legality of their detention. However, any review of detention in US courts is “limited to mere compliance of the detention with domestic law” in violation of Article 9(4) of the ICCPR.
Despite diplomatic efforts, the US has little control over how long it may take to find a third country willing to resettle immigration detainees from Guantánamo Bay. As such, the most viable means of releasing detainees who cannot be repatriated (because they are owed protection from refoulement, are stateless or for some other reason) from arbitrary detention in Guantánamo Bay would be to transfer the detainees to the US mainland. However, despite access to habeas corpus, detainees are unlikely to be brought into the US mainland under any court challenge. The US Supreme Court has determined that it “is not within the province of any court, unless expressly authorized by [municipal] law, to review the determination of the political branch of the Government to exclude a given alien”. US courts have also construed restraints on the freedom of movement of non-citizens resulting from their denial of entry into the US not as unlawful detention, but as a permissible exercise of the executive’s plenary power to deny non-citizens entry. That is, the executive retains the right to decide if and when detainees in immigration detention in Guantánamo Bay can be released from their detention by being brought into the US. As such, the use of Guantánamo Bay as an element of the US’ interdiction program is likely to continue despite violations of the US’ international obligations.