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The Indian Newspapers report (Sunday TOI, p. 12) of the Obama Administration in the United States of America now doing away with the phrase ‘enemy combatant’; a designation for terror suspects to justify their detention in Guantanamo Bay.

After Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the Military Commissions Act 2006 gave power to the Bush Administration to define an ‘unlawful enemy combatant’ and decide whether the laws of war as codified in the Geneva Conventions and existent in customary international law were applicable to such person or not. The Act also contained provisions removing access to the courts for any alien detained by the United States government who is determined to be an enemy combatant, or who is ‘awaiting determination’ regarding enemy combatant status.

This idea of ‘unlawful enemy combatants’ was thus used as a justification to hold detainees in Guantanamo bay and to deny them access to habeas corpus. The United States Supreme Court has deliberated the legality of this notion in may case law. [See Boumediene v. Bush, 128 S. Ct. 2229 : Rasul v. Bush, 542 U.S. 466 (2004) ]

One of the promises of the Obama Campaign was to shut down Guantanamo Bay and rightly so, the moment he came to power he decided to shut down that ill fated detention centre within a given period. In In re: Guantanamo Bay Detainee Litigation, the Washington District Court is deliberating on the legality of such detention and the Obama Administration has recently filed a memo in that Court regarding its ‘new understanding’ of the situation in Guantanamo Bay. The memo now says;

“The President has the authority to detain persons that the President determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible for those attacks. The President also has the authority to detain persons who were part of, or substantially supported, Taliban or al-Qaida forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act, or has directly supported hostilities, in aid of such enemy armed forces.”


Thus, in as much as the power to arbitrarily define as to who is an enemy combatant has been done away with, there is a fixed definition that has been incorporated in the Authorisation of the Use of Military Force (AUMF). But sadly, this however does not change anything for the prisoners in Guantanamo as the consequences of this change are futile and they shall still remain in Guantanamo. This because, in as much as they may now not be enemy combatants, they still may have ‘substantially supported’ forces engaged in hostilities with the United States. 

My point then being, that newspaper reports in India that there has been a substantial change in the outlook are wrong and a deeper analysis is required to comment upon it.

What is laudatory however is the commitment of the Administration that the laws of war would be applicable to all the detainees thus doing away with the earlier discretion of the Bush administration as to whether the laws of war would be applicable or not.

The entire memo submitted to the DC Court is available here. 

See also Obama admin. to end use of term ‘enemy combatant’ .