The naval station at Guantánamo Bay presents a number of complicated questions concerning human rights, international relations, and the United States constitution. The bay is located on the Southeastern tip of Cuba and has been leased by the United States since 1903. The lease gives the United States sovereignty over the territory––the land is American soil––yet neither countries laws clearly apply. The semantic maneuvering and legal ballet of the past century have positioned the naval base into an unprecedented legal spot where the constitution is seemingly enforced only partially and irregularly. At the same time, since the base is in Cuba, the US country merely rents and controls the site, the US government has used and reused Guantánamo for this legal ambiguity.
Most striking for me was a court case which helped set the precedent for Guantánamo’s effective transformation into a legal black hole. The argument about whether U.S. constitutional rights apply to American controlled territories outside of the formal states pertains to a number of areas, not only the naval base at Guantanamo. In an article by Amy Kaplan, “Where is Guantanamo?” the author outlines the ill-defined space within which GTMO exists and the court decisions that have allowed the detainment of refugees from Haiti and Cuba and later suspected “enemy combatants” during the War on Terror without the recognition of rights which would be protected by the constitution. Explored in this article are a number of court decisions, including United States v. Verdugo-Urquidez, in which a suspected drug dealer’s home was searched without a warrant in Mexico following his arrest by U.S. agents. The court ruled against the extension of the Fourth Amendment to the defendant and Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote in his decision that because the Fourth Amendment used the word “people” instead of “persons” that it was applicable only to the citizens of the United States. Kaplan writes, “He [Chief Justice Rehnquist] thus read a nationalist hierarchy of rights as already written into the language of the Bill of Rights, only some of which are applicable to the general category of ‘persons’ who are not U.S. citizens.”
This tenuous distinction between “the people” and “persons” guided following legal decisions, setting a slightly unnerving pattern of U.S. court judges deciding with occasionally inscrutable logic who gets which rights and where. These decisions chip away at the idea that some human rights are absolutely inalienable and make possible the neglected refugee camps and secretive detention centers which are now part of the U.S. legacy in Guantánamo. One can’t help but wonder after reading Chief Justice Rehnquist’s differentiation between “people” and “persons” who exactly are the people and what rights extend to all persons?
Posted by Claire Wolford – M.A. Candidate at New York University
New York University is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.