Closing Guantánamo: Will Europeans take detainees?

Europeans, who have long pushed to close the controversial facility, are hesitant to take some of its inmates.

Brennan Linsley/AP
Closing: Guards at Guantánamo’s Camp 6 detention center Wednesday. The war-crimes court has been suspended for review. President Obama has ordered the camp to shut within a year.
Brennan Linsley/AP
Restraints: Shackles used at Guantánamo. The camp was a source of sharp disagreement between the US and Europe.

On no single issue has Europe been more in disagreement with America than the Guantánamo detention center. The camp was a focus of anti-US protest here, synonymous with the image of a bullying world power using torture to obtain confessions from terror suspects.

The European Union collectively called for closing "Gitmo." Now, Barack Obama, who is deeply admired in Europe, has ordered Gitmo trials to be halted, and signed an executive order Thursday to close Guantánamo within a year.

It sounds like Europe's dream scenario. Yet European states are not rushing to take detainees, a step considered essential to closing the camps.

Rather, on the eve of a Jan. 26 meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels that takes up the question, there's more temporizing than unity – and a possibility that some states that say they will take inmates considered wrongly detained may hide behind bureaucratic moves to tie such help to a collective EU agreement. Such agreement may be difficult.

In France, and also in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel was first in Europe to call for closing Guantánamo – foreign and interior ministers are now making conflicting statements over a willingness to play host.

"We know of interest from Finland, Ireland, Germany, Portugal, Britain, and Sweden," says Lotte Leicht, director of EU affairs at Human Rights Watch in Brussels. "But some of these states are also hinting that help should be spread among all states in a collective decision.

"The Europeans said for years they would assist inmates if only the Bush administration would decisively close Guantánamo," she continues. "Now we have a new reality with a new president. So to say the EU can only help if we do it together may be a bad excuse not to, rather than a real effort."

European nations are mainly looking at the 60 of the 245 detainees who have been scrutinized and cleared for release – but cannot go home to China, Algeria, Uzbekistan, Russia, Syria, Libya, and other states, due to fears of reprisal.

Albania took five Chinese Uighers in 2006. Some human rights groups have called for the Obama administration to take the remaining 15 Uighers as a show of good faith.

Portugal and non-EU member Switzerland this fall suggested they would take inmates unconditionally; some diplomats see statements this week by Spanish President José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero as an affirmative sign.

The Netherlands has given a definite "No," and Austria, Denmark, and Poland have sounded negative in press reports.

European diplomats say it is early days, that the Obama White House has made no formal requests for relocation, and that many nations are waiting for a fuller reading of what the Obama team will bring to transatlantic relations.

As one American diplomat in Europe put it: "They all said no before, and now they want to say yes, but there are domestic and legal hurdles to surmount."

European expert Charles Kupchan, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says that, "It would be an important gesture of goodwill and would get the transatlantic relationship off on the right foot … to have help with the prisoners. It would mark a clear break with the Bush years, when Europe was unwilling to help."

But in an EU that is often characterized as divisive and dissembling on hard national problems, and that could not agree this freezing winter on how to collectively deal with gas shut-offs in the Russia-Ukraine dispute, the Obama team may have to be patient.

The administration wants help in its efforts on Afghanistan, but this week, military officials in Germany, France, Britain, and Italy suggested that, at least for now, they would not be sending more troops there.

On Guantánamo, there was a chorus of support from within the relevant quarters in the EU bureaucracy – both before and after Jan. 20. EU Commissioner for Justice Jacques Barrot said this week that Obama's move to close down the detention center was "a chance for a new partnership between Europe and the US." Thomas Hammarberg, the commissioner for human rights at the Council of Europe, on Jan. 19 called for the EU to offer asylum to those who can't return home.

But these voices vie with statements and popular sentiments that the problem is one America caused and thus should deal with. "America created Guantánamo. It has to come up with the solution," as Austria's interior minister, Maria Fekter, stated this week.

Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has repeatedly called for help with Guantánamo in an election year in which he is Chancellor Merkel's main competitor. But this week, Wolfgang Schauble, the interior minister and a member of Merkel's party, sounded a different note, saying that the republic should only take persons of German nationality, of which there are none. "The United States holds responsibility for the people who have spent years in Guantánamo," he said.

Jennifer Daksal at Human Rights Watch in Washington counters that while the US is primarily responsible, "There now a recognition that Guantánamo is everybody's problem. It is part of the terrorist recruiting narrative. For years, the Europeans have indicated they would help, but Bush never put forward a plan. Now, Barack Obama is ready to do this."

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