Leading article: How to lose the moral war

Editorial

The Independent

Published: 19 February 2006

Reports of prisoner abuse by British and American troops, and accounts of the mistreatment of detainees at Guantanamo and "extraordinary rendition" flights leading to the torture of suspects, have led to a critical erosion in our moral authority. It has come to something when such words are those not only of a leading article in The Independent on Sunday but also of a speech delivered - in America - by the Conservative shadow Foreign Secretary.

William Hague deserves no little admiration for speaking the truth to power; indeed, for travelling to the home of power to do so. The fact that this was supposed to be a bridge-repairing trip after Michael Howard was excommunicated by President Bush's Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Karl Rove, only increases our respect. Mr Howard's crime was to question, retrospectively, the wisdom invading Iraq.

Mr Hague's intervention unexpectedly adds to the chorus of voices calling President Bush to account over Guantanamo Bay. The noise is now quite deafening. Last week, we heard from the UN Human Rights Commission, Kofi Annan, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, calling for the prison camp to be closed. Even Peter Hain, a cabinet minister, himself looking trapped in a BBC studio, brought himself to interpret the Prime Minister's description of Guantanamo as "an anomaly" as meaning that it should be closed.

It is worth pointing out that the wheels of the US legal system are turning, if exceedingly slowly. Eighteen months ago, the US Supreme Court ruled that the prisoners at Guantanamo had the right to challenge their detention in the US courts. In an effort to head off and delay such legal action, the Bush administration set up military tribunals to try the prisoners which even Lord Goldsmith, the British Attorney General, said failed to meet "standards we would regard as acceptable". So it is that, after more than four years, hundreds of non-people still face non-trials on non-charges in a non-place, as one American commentator put it. Since most of the citizens of media-saturated rich countries were released more than a year ago, Guantanamo has also been, for most of the media, a non-story. While we understand the motives of human-rights campaigners who have tried to interest the British media in the fate of the eight former residents of Britain who are held in Guantanamo, it must be said that the holding of all prisoners in a legal Bermuda triangle is inexcusable. While the British government had a legal responsibility to concern itself with the fate of the British citizens who have been released, its wider moral responsibility is to speak up for the rights of all the remaining prisoners, regardless of where they once lived. It was significant that so many voices were raised in defence of universal human rights last week and that it attracted such a flurry of global media interest.

As Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence, said in a speech last week that showed a remarkable lack of self-knowledge, his country is fighting a battle which "will be won or lost with our publics, and with the publics of other nations". It is a battle that is being fought in the cells of American prisons from Afghanistan to Guantanamo via Abu Ghraib and other unknown locations around the globe. A battle that is being fought in the newsrooms of the world. A battle that America is losing.

If William Hague can say so, and if Peter Hain can say so, it is incumbent on Tony Blair to describe Guantanamo Bay as something rather more significant than "an anomaly". It is time for the Bush administration to bow to the inevitable, which is that the prisoners' rights will be enforced under American law. They might as well be moved to the mainland now. We understand the Prime Minister's desire for tact and diplomacy, but the time has passed for that.