Transfers, Releases & Resettlements

The Last Uighurs

By John Bellinger
Tuesday, December 31, 2013, 1:20 PM

The Obama Administration's Guantanamo envoys Clifford Sloan and Paul Lewis (at State and DoD respectively) should be commended for their hard work to resettle the last of the 22 Uighurs from Guantanamo.   And Slovakia deserves special recognition for agreeing to take the remaining three, joining Albania, Bermuda, Palau, Switzerland, and El Salvador who have stood up to Chinese threats to resettle the previous 19.

A former Obama White House official is quoted by Charlie Savage in today's New York Times as saying about the Uighurs "They didn't belong there [in Guantanamo] in the first place."   This is true, but the partisan swipe is both unfair and unhelpful to efforts to build bipartisan support for closure of Guantanamo.   The Uighurs were not transferred to Guantanamo based on orders of political officials from the last Administration.   They were transferred to Guantanamo by military officials on the ground in Afghanistan who concluded, in the fog of war and in the midst of ongoing hostilities in Afghanistan, that the Uighurs had been present in al-Qaida-affiliated training camps.

Bush Administration officials made the determination early in the Bush Administration's first term that the Uighurs did not pose a threat to the United States and should be released.   Senior Bush Administration officials -- including former Ambassadors for War Crimes Pierre Prosper and Clint Williamson -- then spent six years trying to resettle them, starting with the first five whom Albania agreed to take in 2006.   The Bush Administration contacted more than 100 countries, almost all of whom refused to help either because they did not want to help the Bush Administration for political reasons, or because of Chinese threats to cut off trade relations.  If other countries had been more willing to help close Guantanamo (rather than simply to criticize the United States), the Uighurs would have been released long ago.

The Obama Administration's first Guantanamo Envoy Dan Fried worked extremely hard to resettle the remaining Uighurs and succeeded in transferring another 14 in the Obama Administration's first term.  In 2009, I wrote that it would be helpful to resettle at least some of the Uighurs in the United States; I continue to think that they would not have posed any more of a threat to this country than to the six countries that have agreed to take them.

The sad story of the Uighurs demonstrates why the issues surrounding both the opening and the closure of Guantanamo are more complex than many critics believe.   Cliff Sloan and Paul Lewis should receive bipartisan support in Congress for their efforts to reduce the detainee population at Guantanamo, and Obama Administration officials should resist the temptation to politicize their work.