When Barack Obama announced, in one of his first acts as President, that he would close the prison at Guantanamo by the end of the year, he was doing no more than honour one of his most often stated campaign promises. But it turns out that deciding to shut down the camp was one thing; working out what to do with the remaining inmates – quite another.
The complexities have been highlighted again in recent days by the saga of the Uighur prisoners who hailed originally from China's western, predominantly Muslim, province of Xinjiang. Everyone – except the Chinese authorities – seems to have agreed that the one option to be ruled out was repatriation to China. Muslim Uighurs are automatically suspected by Beijing of separatism. Those few who had found their way to Guantanamo, by whatever convoluted route, could be expected to face trial, and even summary execution, if they returned.
Five years ago, a small group of Uighurs were among the first prisoners to be released from Guantanamo, after the Bush administration conceded that they were not "enemy combatants" and reached agreement with Albania to resettle them there. Earlier this week another four were freed to Bermuda. The Pacific nation of Palau has said it will accept some, if not all, of the remaining 13.
The arrangements have not been without controversy. Naturally, there is speculation about financial incentives. China said the men should have been returned to be tried as terrorists. Some in the US accused the administration of freeing dangerous individuals without safeguards, and the British objected that the deal with Bermuda should have been cleared first with them. All of which illustrates the problem: if resettling the Uighurs, regarded as the least risky group of detainees, raises such sensitivities, how much harder will it be for the US administration to resettle the other 220 or so?
A small number may end up being tried in the United States proper. Some may be able to return to their homelands. The vast majority, though, will need to be resettled elsewhere. Saudi Arabia could take many of the Yemenis, the largest single group. But the EU, including Britain, will also have to do its bit. An agreement on coordinated security screening is said to be in progress, which is a sensible first step. If we really want Mr Obama to end the disgrace of Guantanamo, we have a duty to take what will be only a small share of the burden on ourselves.Reuse content