POMED and, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, in cooperation with the Center for American Progress, co-hosted a panel discussion on Monday, June 15, 2009 entitled “Restoring Credibility on Human Rights and Democracy: Detention, Rendition and the Middle East. The panelists were Issandr El-Amrani— Cairo based writer and consultant and editor of the popular blog Arabist.net; Heather Hurlburt – executive director – of the National Security Network; and Claudia Hillebrand of Aberystwyth University in the UK. Brian Katulisof the Center for American Progress moderated the discussion.El-Amrani began by asserting that the Obama administration’s early actions have begun to improve America’s negative regional reputation. As a caveat, he noted however that the mood was one of “cautious optimism” and that it trended more toward caution than optimism. He acknowledged that Obama’s popular appeal transcends normal political considerations in generating good will for the US in the Middle East. El-Amrani was careful to note, however, that Obama’s concrete action on issues such as pledging to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, ending the practice of torture and altering the US’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have also engendered goodwill in the region. While these steps constitute a solid beginning of rapprochement, he emphasized the we cannot underestimate the damage inflicted on U.S. credibility in the aftermath ofthe Bush Administration’s actions with regards to the War on Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and the Middle East peace process among others. . As a corollary, he urged patience with the president’s plan because major changes were yet to come. Overall, he argued, ordinary Middle Easterners are optimistic about Obama’s plans, but taking a “wait and see” approach as they are eager to see if he can deliver on his robust promises.

Hillebrand asserted that it was important not to neglect Europe’s complicity in the Bush era detention and rendition policies. Although she noted that some smaller organizations had probed these connections, there is no wide scale European reflection on the topic. Europeans engaged on the issue agree that the continent’s participation in these programs badly damaged its credibility on human rights issues in the Middle East. Hillebrand also noted the lack of a continental consensus on how to contribute to the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention center by absorbing released detainees. She noted how many Europeans were disappointed with the speed of the facility’s closure. Hillebrand attributed this to the unrealistically high expectations Europeans had for Obama’s early tenure. As a result, many Europeans now understand closing the facility will take much longer than first presumed and that the EU must play a constructive role in accelerating the process.

Heather Hurlburt highlighted three specific domestic impediments to the Obama’s administrations plans for Guantanamo. First, she highlighted the myriad administrative difficulties involved with the base’s closure. The Bush administration, for example, failed to maintain comprehensive files on Guantanamo detainees consistent with standards for modern justice. She noted that the task forces the Obama administration formed to combat this and other issues are behind schedule in their deliberations and complicated its pledge to close Guantanamo in January 2010. The second set was concerns involving competing goals from the human rights and security community within the US government and domestic political constituencies – each of whom have different priorities. This tensions is further complicated by a lack of reliable statistics on detainee recidivism. Hurlburt also noted that the administration’s inability to close the base quickly allowed the consolidation of domestic political opposition to the president’s plans. The third set of complications involves the necessity of obtaining worldwide cooperation for resettling detainees. Like the US, she argued, European countries also have strong concerns about releasing detainees into their populations.

El-Amrani argued that Bush-era rendition policies have complicated political reform in the Middle East; one example being Morocco. After the death of Hassan II, King Mohammed VI established a truth and reconciliation commission to probe human rights violations under his father’s rule. But in the aftermath of 9/11 and the 2003 attacks in Casablanca, the country’s new counter-terrorism policies trumped any effort to pursue human rights reform or seek accountability for past injustices. The King’s cooperation with the Bush administration’s rendition and detention policies, El-Amrani asserted, crushed a nascent human rights restoration in the country.

Hillebrand addressed the complicated situation involving shipping terror suspects to other countries in the Middle East for interrogation. Western countries rely on “diplomatic assurances” that these suspects would not be tortured during their interrogations. The assurances, she argued, lack any verifiable mechanism to monitor compliance. Hillebrand agreed with groups such as the Council of Europe who argue for a comprehensive framework to guide this type of intelligence cooperation.

On the issue of preventative detention, Hurlburt wondered whether it was worse for the United States to establish a preventative detention regime – which does have historical precedent in conflicts such as World War II – or to ask foreign countries from time to time to indefinitely detain suspects without legal recourse. She argued that limited preventative detention was ultimately preferable to indefinite detention in a third country.

Building off Hurlburt’s point, El-Amrani raised the example of emergency laws in Egypt. He noted that in the past, the United States officially called for a repeal of the 1981 law. The passage of the PATRIOT Act complicated this position; Egyptian officials began justifying their own anti-terrorism activities under the Emergency Law by pointing to what they perceive is a similar American law. He noted that an opportunity exists to change the law in the upcoming leadership transition in Egypt.

Hillebrand argued that systemic review is very important. At European conferences, participants agree that any new treaty framework should include a provision compelling EU countries to review their anti-terrorism legislation. European governments, she noted, are hesitant to undertake this effort.

At the conclusion of the discussion, Katulis asked each participant to reflect on what the situation would be like in three years. El-Amrani recognized that US progress towards closing Guantanamo is extremely contingent on the broader political situation at home and the geopolitical situation in the region. He believed, however, that any initial excitement over Obama’s early actions on human rights has been overwhelmed by everything happening on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. US credibility in the region, he argued, might hinge more on the peace process than on closing the detention facility.

Hillebrand opined that it is near impossible to close Guantanamo by the end of 2009 given the reluctance of European governments to contribute to the effort. She also noted that even if Guantanamo were to close by Obama’s deadline, the issue of the more than 600 detainees at at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan will still bring the issue of detention into the spotlight.  She believed issues of secret detentions and intelligence cooperation will remain prominent over the next 5-10 years.

Hurlburt asserted that Guantanamo will be closed on January 22, 2010 to uphold Obama’s personal credibility in the region. This closure, however, will likely come in a unacceptable form for human rights groups. She agreed with Hillebrand that global attention will turn to the much trickier situation at Bagram Air Base. She also predicted that a former Guantanamo detainee might participate in an attack and that would likely reignite the debate on the proper way to deal with preventative detention and anti-terrorism policy.