Passing the Buck: Exporting Prisoners from Guantánamo

by Binoy Kampmark Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. Email: 18.01.2009

With Guantánamo Bay losing its patriotic luster and purpose, US authorities are willing to offload some of the carceral baggage to recipient states. In truth, they have been in the business of doing so for years. It seems that the Bush administration has, at stages, burdened various members of the Anglosphere (and others) with requests on whether they would accept certain numbers of detainees.  In the twilight of the current administration, efforts have intensified.


According to a statement from acting Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard (5 January), the Bush administration approached Canberra in early 2008 with a request that they receive a small group of detainees from Guantánamo.  Officials were nervously considering the plea – Canberra has tended to say yes to most requests from Washington, given its continued inability to identify a foreign policy unencumbered by superpower mania.


Canberra ultimately declined to do so (twice, it would seem), even if previous Australian governments have been in the habit of burdening other nations, notably such states as Nauru, with various “unwanted” detainees.  This was the Howard government’s jewel in its anti-immigration crown, preventing asylum seekers from landing on Australian territory.  Far better to give them, these freedom mongers, a guano-laden paradise in a tailored “Pacific Solution”, with fully built detention facilities, than process them with some speed in Australia proper.


Then, of course, came the British, those Greek advisors to modern Rome.  Surely they would relent?  Prime Minister Gordon Brown supports the closure of the camp, but was “not aware of any direct request at the moment.”  While the American embassy in London has denied the formal issue of a request that Britain assume some of its prisoner cargo, the ambassador has been saying something else in his interviews.  That was, at least, according to a report in the Times of London.  “I would hope that if the UK could see its way through to take some detainees, that would certainly be helpful,” said US Ambassador Robert Tuttle in a published interview (January 9).


The Pentagon has already whisked a few inmates to other global destinations in its prisoner export program. Bosnia received three Algerian prisoners on December 16.  Reports suggest that 60 have been cleared for release, but can’t return to their home countries given the likelihood of torture that awaits them on their return.  Such are the paradoxes of fighting wars against terror.


It should then come as one of those un-cunning moments of history that the Bush administration, and the incoming Obama team, have to rely on countries which were somewhat reluctant in widening the scope of Washington’s anti-terror games.  Germany, excoriated for its namby pamby reluctance to awaken belligerent urges to go to war, has reluctantly offered to resettle some of the inmates in the event of the camp’s closure.  The Portuguese expressed a similar willingness in December.  Lisbon, in truth, was instrumental behind encouraging fellow EU countries to “step forward” in resettling the detainees.


The headache is not going to disappear come Tuesday. Countries are baffled as to how to cope with what are termed “hard cases”.  No one, it seems, is entirely happy shouldering the administrative errors of George W. Bush.  Even if they might love Obama.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  Email:


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