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Europe Must Help Obama Close Guantanamo

By Mark Rhinard and Erik Brattberg

When President Barack Obama pledged to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility last year, America's European allies cheered. The facility had become a lightning rod for international criticism and a dispiriting symbol of Western hypocrisy on human rights. But with the process of closing the facility now underway, the same allies who once cheered the decision have turned conspicuously quiet.

In Guantanamo, Obama inherited an almost impossible set of problems. The previous administration's flawed system for arresting, evaluating and prosecuting prisoners has made it difficult to assess security risks. When admissible evidence of crimes exists, detainees will face prosecution either in military commissions or federal courts. When evidence is patchy but substantial enough to generate security concerns, some type of further detention is necessary. And when prisoners are deemed not to be a security threat, arrangements will need to be found for their transfer and reintegration into society.

Approximately 50 persons fit into the latter category but cannot be resettled in the U.S. following a Congressional ban. Repatriation to a prisoner's home country will be difficult, either because a prisoner's origin is unclear or because of fear of persecution. It comes as no surprise that Obama will likely miss his January 2010 deadline for closing Guantanamo.

Without international help, the Guantanamo problem will linger. Closing the facility quickly will hasten an improvement in relations with the Muslim world and prevent complaints of the West 'backsliding' on commitments. Both the U.S. and Europe will benefit by restoring international legitimacy on the question of human rights and by turning the corner in their own troubled partnership in the fight against terrorism.

Thus far, however, Europe's approach has been lukewarm and piecemeal. In a recent joint statement, the European Union countries backed Washington's decision to close the facility and indicated a willingness to help. But beyond those words, only Portugal, Italy, Ireland and Spain have expressed a vague willingness to help. Previously, only France, Sweden, and the UK have received former detainees of foreign nationality.

Although the operational, legal, and political challenges facing a country's decision to accept Guantanamo detainees are substantial, those difficulties can and must be overcome. Europe's open borders require that solutions be highly coordinated, if not collectively agreed. Three sets of challenges and solutions demand immediate focus.

First, EU countries will have a difficult time evaluating asylum candidates. Detainees from Guantanamo were neither imprisoned for clear reasons, nor were they subject to due process upon incarceration. The US must share all vital intelligence information regarding the prisoners if EU countries are to consider starting the asylum process. The Counter Terrorism Group, a non-EU but trusted intelligence coordination system among European countries, may constitute an appropriate venue for collective vetting (if not decision making) of detainees bound for Europe.

Second, EU countries should also consider coordinating asylum procedures regarding the detainees. Several member states argue that detainee applications will follow existing asylum procedures. While fine in principle, in practice every EU country interprets the UN's Refugee Convention 'threat to society' clause differently. That threat may provide a loophole for countries to accept or reject applicants along the lines of national criteria, despite the fact that Europe's open borders mean a former detainee accepted in one state could travel freely throughout the region. This challenge requires two solutions. Non-binding guidelines for consideration of the threat to societal clause should be welcomed by all EU countries and help to expedite the handling of applications. In addition, the EU ought to also consider reaching a common accord regarding deradicalization and reintegration of prisoners into society.

Third, EU countries will face high costs and skeptical publics. The EU itself could offer to reimburse its member countries for some of the costs associated with processing, housing, and keeping tabs on newly settled detainees. The Obama administration should also encourage the EU by fulfilling the pledges made during a recent meeting with EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg about sharing the cost burden. Finally, Congress must repeal its law against taking prisoners, as U.S. opposition is perceived by many in Europe as unfair and hypocritical.

In sum, it is clear that the closing of Guantanamo Bay requires a truly transatlantic solution. With the dispute finally out of the way, a new foundation can be laid for a joint transatlantic counterterrorism policy based on common principles. Paving the way for such a framework, Sweden, with its long tradition of respect for international law and human rights, could use its current EU Presidency to seek to intensify EU-U.S. dialogue on international legal principles relevant to combating terrorism and heighten mutual understanding of respective legal frameworks.

Mark Rhinard is a Senior Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm (

Erik Brattberg is a Research Assistant at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm (

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The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Johns Hopkins University.

Comments (3)

yeolds Author Profile Page:

Why must Europe or NAto or other countries constntly and endlessly bail out the USA for her arrogant mistakes? Iraq,Afganistan, Kosovo, Georgia, Somalia, Iran, Wall Street, USA National Debt, ad infinitum?
Perhaps the USA should live within her means, and instead of yapping about the RULE OF LAW, assure that she acts within the RULE OF LAW.

Shiveh Author Profile Page:

Guantanamo is America’s responsibility not Europe’s. We made a huge mistake by discarding due process of law and now that the 9/11 fever is over the least we must do is to acknowledge our mistakes, rectify them and enable provisions that will stop us from repeating similar mistakes in the future; trying to blame others or asking them to share in our responsibility only shows that we still lack the desired maturity.

Our court system must judge those detainees that we can prove guilty and if they are to be incarcerated, they should join our maximum security prison population like any other dangerous criminal. The political game that some of our senators are playing with these felons is cowardice.

The Guantanamo prisoners that can not be convicted must go free regardless of the degree of guilt or danger they may impose. Our judicial system is just only for as long as it is not randomly enforced. These former detainees can choose to go back to their own country or to any country that takes them. If no country wants them and their lives or freedom is in danger in their country of origin (and apparently this is the case with many of them,) they are our responsibility. It is a hard place to be at, both for us and for them, but it is the price of our mistake.

The reason we can not send these people to the country of their origin is that they used to live in police states that will hurt them. Because these are dictatorships, these governments and the laws they impose do not have national or international legitimacy and we are not morally obligated to honor them. So, one out of the box solution could be to offer these detainees new (forged) identities and enough means to live by and send them back to their own country. They can not blow their own covers inside the new country, since they are wanted by the police state and they can not do it outside the country because having false documentation is a crime. If they reject the new identity, then they go back at their own risk.

At the moment we are trying to resettle them mostly in European countries. This will give them much freedom to hurt us or our allies if that is their intension. Any terror act committed by them will turn people in the host country against us. I take the possibility of annoying a few dictators over the possibility of causing anger and harm to our European friends any time.

Citizenofthepost-Americanworld Author Profile Page:


What a cheek!

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