Who Wants the Worst of the Worst? Resettlement of Guantanamo Bay detainees

This September, it will be twenty years since the terrorist attacks on the United States on ‘9/11’. In response to the attacks, the U.S. intensified the war on terror, invaded Afghanistan and filled up the ad-hoc detention facility in Guantanamo Bay with roughly 780 alleged terrorists, originating from over 35 countries. Although the U.S. Department of Defense referred to these men as ‘the worst of the worst’, different review mechanisms actually determined the far majority of detainees to be low-level offenders – if offenders at all – who were not affiliated with any terrorist organization.

As a result, most detainees have been cleared for release or for transfer since 2002, with only 40 detainees still remaining in Guantanamo. Many have returned to their country of origin, but 150 cleared detainees proved ‘Undesirable but Unreturnable’ (UBUs). ‘Undesirable’ because the U.S. Congress prohibited their release on U.S. soil and ‘unreturnable’, because they are stateless, because there were fears that they would run a serious risk of being subjected to torture in their country of origin (human rights concerns), or because a detainee’s country of origin was seen as unwilling or unable to guarantee that the released detainee would not pose a future security threat to the U.S. (security concerns). The U.S. government – quite literally – was ‘stuck’ with them.

In our recently published article ‘Who Wants the Worst of the Worst?’, we discuss the ways in which the U.S. eventually managed to resettle the majority of these arguably most hotly-debated UBUs in history, and analyse why almost 30 countries were willing to host these predominantly Chinese, Yemeni, Afghan, Syrian and Tunisian detainees. Based on Starkley et al.’s Zone of Agreement model, our analysis learns that while particularly European and the Middle Eastern countries have been important resettlement destinations, European countries have accepted way less detainees than Middle Eastern countries. Strikingly, only 23 per cent of the unreturnable detainees have been resettled to NATO allies. This implies that shared political values and good diplomatic and military relations between the U.S. and a third country alone cannot explain why a country is prepared to resettle detainees.

Top 10 resettlement countries by number of resettled ex-detainees

When Obama in 2009 pledged to close Guantanamo Bay, political representatives of liberal democracies were typically the first to support his plans. But when push came to shove, few democratic governments helped out. Long-time Anglo-Saxon allies like Canada, Australia and even the United Kingdom – the first European country to join the ‘coalition of the willing’ in supporting the 2003 Iraq invasion – did not resettle a single UBU Guantanamo Bay detainee.

For democracies, in some cases merely informing parliament about the start of resettlement negotiations already caused domestic political consternation. As we discuss in the article, fears for negative political or economic repercussions of resettling detainees played a role in this, in particular in relation to resettlement of Chinese Uyghurs. Those fears may explain why –  a few seemingly idealistic leaders aside – few democracies were willing to resettle significant numbers of detainees.

Number of resettled ex-detainees per regime type

‘Incentivizing’ more pragmatically-oriented – and often less democratic – governments by using a carrot-or-stick approach proved a much more successful strategy, from the U.S. government’s perspective. Leaked diplomatic cables suggest that monetary incentives, or more intangible concessions such as political favors, played a role in these negotiations.

The Obama administration mainly relied on small and relatively ‘weak’ nations such as Bermuda or Palau for resettling Uyghur detainees, who could not be deported to China for human rights concerns. Highly authoritarian regimes such as the UAE, Oman and Saudi Arabia resettled a considerable number of detainees of other nationalities who could not be deported for human rights concerns or were considered to pose a continuing security threat. With the help of these countries many cell blocks in Guantanamo Bay were emptied before the Trump government took over.

Cynically, in his efforts to close Guantanamo Obama relied heavily on the cooperation of authoritarian states considered to be human rights violators themselves. Some cleared and resettled detainees continue to be detained without due process up until today; not in a U.S.-ran military base on Cuba, but in a prison far off in the Middle Eastern desert. The nickname of one of those prisons? ‘Guantanamo of the United Arab Emirates’.

While Obama effectuated the last three resettlements on 19 January 2017, the very last day of his Presidency, no more detainees have been resettled since. Trump said, already during his presidential campaign, that closure of Guantanamo Bay would not be a priority under his presidency. Acknowledging that it would take time, the new Biden administration in February 2021 expressed hopes to shut down the detention facility. At least six of the remaining 40 detainees are ‘recommended for transfer if security conditions are met’, but it remains to be seen which countries will be willing to help out the U.S. in the upcoming years.

Gaia Rietveld, Joris van Wijk, Maarten Bolhuis –