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Joanne Mariner

European Support for Closing Guantanamo


Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2008

High among the difficult yet crucial challenges facing President-elect Barack Obama is how to close Guantanamo. During his campaign, Obama promised to shut down the notorious prison camp, and he reiterated that promise in a "60 Minutes" interview last month.

The task of closing Guantanamo is really the task of figuring out what to do with the 250 men who are still held there. Some of these men are responsible for criminal acts and they should be prosecuted in US courts. But others are innocent of criminal activity and should be released.

In this latter category are a number of detainees -- including Uighurs, Uzbeks, and Algerians -- who cannot be returned to their home countries because they would face a real risk of torture or other mistreatment. What to do with these men -- where to resettle them -- is among the key questions that the new administration will have to address.

The European Option

Summarizing the problem in emotive -- and inaccurate -- terms, outgoing Vice-President Dick Cheney told ABC News on Monday that he didn't think many members of Congress would be "eager to have 200 Al Qaeda terrorists deposited in their district."

Despite Cheney's inflammatory claims, many detainees at Guantanamo have no links to Al Qaeda and no record of violence. And since most of them can be returned to their home countries without fear of abuse, the number in need of resettlement is in the dozens, at most.

Still, the question of what to do with this small group of men is a pressing one. Given the many years that detainees at Guantanamo have been labeled the "worst of the worst," it would be politically difficult for the Obama Administration to resettle all of them in the United States.

So it was quite encouraging that last week saw an important breakthrough on detainee resettlement. Portugal's foreign minister, Luis Amado, urged European countries to join together to formulate a coordinated European resettlement plan. In a letter to his EU counterparts, he declared that the "time has come for the European Union to step forward."

Uighurs, Uzbeks and Others

Of the 250 detainees still being held at Guantanamo, some 30 to 50 have expressed concerns about being tortured or persecuted if returned to their home countries. The men come from places such as China, Uzbekistan, Libya, and Algeria: countries with long records of committing torture.

The largest single group among them consists of 17 Uighurs from western China, men who have been cleared for release from Guantanamo for years. In October 2008, a US federal court ordered the Bush administration to release the Uighurs into the United States because the government had failed to find another place for them. The government has appealed the ruling, however, and the Uighurs are still in detention at Guantanamo.

Concrete European Assistance

European governments have long criticized the US practice of indefinite detention at Guantanamo, calling for the detention facility to be closed. Yet for years, with the exception of Albania (which took in eight detainees in 2006), no European government has been willing to accept detainees who cannot be sent back home. The Portuguese call represents the first time that an EU government has publicly pushed to assist in Guantanamo's closure by facilitating the resettlement of detainees.

One of the main reasons that US efforts to convince its European allies to resettle detainees have been unsuccessful is that the Bush Administration has been unwilling to accept any detainees itself. If that policy changes under President Obama, which it should, European assistance might come much more readily.

The United States created the problem of Guantanamo, and the United States is responsible for solving it. But European governments can play a vital role in helping resettle detainees who have nowhere else to go.

Joanne Mariner is an attorney with Human Rights Watch's terrorism and counterterrorism program. Her previous articles on Guantanamo can be found in the FindLaw archives.

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