Next week Pope Francis will make his first visit the United States. The occasion has Catholics and non-Catholics alike wondering what issues the Pope will choose to speak about. His six-day tour includes stops in New York City and Philadelphia before culminating in an address before Congress in Washington, D.C. This would be an ideal opportunity for him to voice his support for closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay and his opposition to torture.
Reports indicate that the majority of the Pope’s public comments will address the need for criminal justice reform, including increased rehabilitation for inmates and an end to indefinite detention, both in the United States and worldwide. In December 2014, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Vatican officials to discuss the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. They expressed the Pope’s desire for the United States to find an “adequate humanitarian solution” for the prisoners and offered to assist in finding locations to transfer detainees.
Of the 116 detainees who remain at Guantanamo, 53 of them have been unanimously cleared by six government agencies and approved for transfer. The approval for the 53rd, made public yesterday, cites the detainee’s deteriorating health and “positive, constructive role in the detention environment” as reasons for approval of his release. Cleared detainees pose little or no risk to the United States (if they ever did). What risks remain can be mitigated. There is no good reason for their continued detention.
Currently, members of Congress are in conference, hammering out details of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which since 2010 has prohibited transfers of Gitmo detainees to the United States—even for trial. President Obama threatened to veto the bill if it contains provisions that would prevent him from closing the detention facility.
If Pope Francis speaks on this issue before Congress, it could encourage members to find a solution to the problem before the NDAA reaches the President’s desk. His voice would demonstrate that this is not just a political question, but a matter of our values and morality as a nation.
Pope Francis has also been outspoken against torture. In 2014 he said, “torturing people is a mortal sin.” His voice would reaffirm that not only is torture ineffective and illegal, but it is immoral and cruel. In July, an overwhelming bipartisan majority in the Senate voted 78-21 to approve the addition of an anti-torture amendment to the NDAA. If Pope Francis condemns torture before Congress, it could help ensure that this critical amendment survives the conference process.
The entire world will be watching when Pope Francis addresses a joint session of Congress. Human Rights First hopes that he will take the opportunity to remind its members of the importance of closing down the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay and preventing torture.