Why Not in Their Backyard? Smart Choices Abroad for Releasing Guantanámo Bay Prisoners

by Alexander Metelitsa

On January 22, 2009, President Obama signed executive orders to shut down the Guantanámo Bay terrorist detention center within a year. Soon after, he established the Guantanámo Detainee Review Interagency Task Force to determine which Guantanamo captives can be prosecuted in the U.S. justice system, which can be released, and whether any captives who cannot be charged with crimes are too dangerous to be released. To date, the Task Force has cleared over 70 of the remaining 220 or so prisoners, dozens of whom could be released tomorrow. So what’s taking so long?

Releasing the prisoners is a complex problem connecting international diplomacy and homeland security. To admit a prisoner was seized wrongfully opens a Pandora’s Box on victim litigation and public opinion backlash. To release a detainee who then joins Al-Qaeda and commits acts of terrorism could be catastrophic for American citizens.

An actual Guantanámo Bay Prisoner Release program has been around since 2002, and more than 500 detainees have been sent to other countries, including Albania, Spain, and Yemen. Yet some governments have reported problems with rehabilitation programs, contending that prison radicalized the detainees. The negative stigma of being accused of terrorism by the United States led countries like Tajikistan to prevent the repatriation of former prisoners. Other countries such as China may seek to imprison their nationals and convict them of separate crimes, such as inciting separatism. Still others angrily point out that the United States has not openly admitted imprisoning anyone by mistake.

The U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to weigh in on whether a federal judge has the power to release Guantanámo Bay prisoners into the United States, raising enormous political questions – the power to exclude aliens generally rests in political branches of government and can a judge rule on what is essentially an immigration policy decision? To avoid this complex legal issue, the Obama administration would need to relocate all the prisoners outside Guantanámo as soon as possible.

It is particularly important to consider the work of Daniel Fried, the Special Envoy to Guantánamo tasked with persuading other countries to accept released prisoners. In June 2009, Fried convinced President Johnson Toribiong of the tiny Pacific island nation of Palau to accept a group of Chinese Uighur detainees. In August 2009, with the one-year anniversary of the war with Russia as his geopolitical background, Fried visited the Republic of Georgia and held talks with officials on the possible transfer of detainees to the former Soviet country.

In contrast to long-time U.S. allies such as the United Kingdom, Palau and Georgia seem strange choices for the prisoner release program. Palau is one of the world’s youngest and smallest sovereign states with a population of about 20,000. Meanwhile, Georgia faces a torrent of potential problems, including its vulnerability to cross-border terrorism, low state capacity, the explosive situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and allegations of human rights abuses by the police and government.

Choosing a country like Palau or Georgia is good calculated risk. Palau is getting $200 million in U.S. aid, although the government denies that this sum is a quid pro quo for the prisoners. Palau’s positive diplomatic relations with Taiwan bypasses Beijing’s insistence that countries not take in detainees that it accuses of being part of the Islamic separatist movement in western China.

Despite Georgia’s volatile relationship with Russia and major internal problems, it is easily the most Western-leaning country in its region. After an economically devastating war and months of street protests calling for the resignation of President Saakashvili, accepting the prisoners is a way for the beleaguered government to strengthen U.S.-Georgian ties and bolster its legitimacy among the population.

Besides it being a savvy political move, the Obama administration should see the transfer as an opportunity to invest in the long-term security of these countries. U.S. agencies could more easily persuade host governments to cooperate in providing improved border stations and training competent police forces. Generous aid packages could come with more human rights monitoring. These countries could see a positive spill-over into areas such as fighting narcotics trafficking and protecting civil liberties.

In short, if the United States wants to minimize risk to its security with finite resources, countries like Georgia and Palau are smart options. They are pro-U.S. and eager to cooperate, even in the face of negative world opinion. The prisoners cleared by the Task Force pose little threat of committing terrorist acts, but do present a complicated challenge to the U.S. legal and political system. Negotiating prisoner release into these countries would allow the U.S. to invest in important strategic regions. Here is a real chance to gain some benefit from an otherwise extremely contentious issue.

Email Alexander Metelitsa at am787@georgetown.edu



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