The negation of everything that the United States professes to stand for

19 November 2003

The state visit of President George Bush has come to signify all that has gone wrong with transatlantic relations. The royal pageantry that should be a public demonstration of amity is being hidden behind the walls of the Palace. The crowds that would, under other circumstances, be cheering this country's most stalwart ally, will be marching in protest. The President will move only in a sealed bubble of security. It will be a tense and contentious three days.

The Prime Minister, for all his assertions that this is the right visit at the right time, has been let down by Mr Bush over the post-war strategy for Iraq, over the Middle East and, most urgently, over the disgrace that is Guantanamo Bay. Common values - that mantra of the US-British relationship - have been repeatedly invoked by both sides on the eve of this visit. There have been times in the past when this concept may have seemed a little too elastic for the tastes of one side or the other; rarely has it been so thoroughly betrayed.

There is much that we do not know about the prison regime at Guantanamo Bay, for the simple reason that the US authorities - traditionally a beacon of openness compared with their counterparts in Europe - have kept international observers out. The Administration therefore has only itself to blame if we draw the most negative of conclusions based on the few crumbs of information that have escaped from behind the barbed wire.

We do know, for example, that the US has refused to recognise its captives as prisoners of war and that it is flouting the terms of the Geneva Conventions. We know that most of the prisoners have no contact with their families for months on end, if at all, and no access to lawyers. We know that they have been held in this American-leased corner of Cuba for the best part of two years now, without charge, without trial, and without any idea of when, if ever, they will be released. We know that there have been suicides, attempted suicides and depression. We know, most disgracefully, that some captives have been subjected to torture.

We also know that, of the 400 or so prisoners remaining at Guantanamo, not one is an American citizen. Any Americans were whisked away many months ago to face their own justice - a relatively merciful brand, as it turned out, in most cases, thanks to plea-bargaining and the information they were deemed likely to impart.

The prison camp at Guantanamo Bay is an absolute negation of everything the United States professes to stand for. There is no openness. There is no accountability. There is no justice. There is only the assumption that because these individuals were captured in and around Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban's fall, they are - in Mr Bush's own words - "bad guys". What chance can there be of fair treatment when such a tone is set from the top?

The one glimmer of hope came two weeks ago, when the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the pleas of lawyers who are challenging the prisoners' lack of access to the law. All lower courts had upheld the rights-deprived limbo in which the prisoners find themselves: held on US-administered territory, which is nonetheless judged to be outside US jurisdiction. The case will not be heard until next year.

Mr Blair and his ministers have tried to secure guarantees that the British citizens at Guantanamo will - at very worst - receive a fair trial in the United States, and - at best - be repatriated to this country. In interviews before he left Washington, Mr Bush said he envisaged a solution to the Guantanamo conundrum that Mr Blair would be "comfortable" with.

That does not inspire confidence. No solution to the shame of Guantanamo should be about comfort or compromise. It is about human rights, state obligations and the sanctity of the law in a democracy held up as an ideal for the rest of the world. Anything less is as much a travesty of our common values as Mr Bush's three-day stay in Britain is a travesty of a state visit.