Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Let's Have an Orderly Return of the Gitmo Gang

The Obama administration can't close the detention facility at Gitmo until it finds some country dumb enough to take in the last of the detainees, the rock-bottom remainders, the residuum that is left after we have released everyone who is releasable. That country won't be the United States, it seems, since the U.S. Congress isn't dumb enough to go along with something that is opposed by 75% of the public.

So that leaves foreign governments. Foreign Policy's Shadow Government blog has a nice piece on Dan Fried, real American hero, the unfortunate State Department official who has the impossible task of "peddling the human equivalent of radioactive waste" to our European allies, or to Middle Eastern governments, or to Asians, or Africans, or Eskimos, or just anybody at all. Anybody, that is, except the few governments that actually want our detainees, but want them for other than humanitarian reasons.

So far, our peddler-hero has been getting nothing but sales resistance. As the clock runs down on Obama's January 2010 deadline for closing Gitmo, thoughts turn toward the option of involuntary repatriation, mitigated by assurances of humane treatment and enough monitoring mechanisms to make us feel better about sending detainees back home to face the music.

Shadow Government quotes The New Republic (Prisoners Dilemma) on that point:

As a fallback, the United States might have to repatriate some of the men to their repressive home countries after all -- which would leave Fried the task of winning promises of good treatment from those governments. "Those are some of the toughest negotiations," says Bellinger, "where we say we have to have high-level, ironclad, specific assurances that [detainees] will not be mistreated, but with some kind of monitoring mechanism."

At the moment, Fried is largely focused on the question of what to do with the roughly 50 to 60 detainees whom the Bush and/or Obama administrations have "cleared," meaning that they won't be charged with any crimes and don't pose a major risk to U.S. security. The obvious answer would be to send them home--except that, in most of these cases, home means a place like Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, or Syria, where many of the men would be greeted with torture and possibly execution.

Involuntary repatriation is nothing new for the U.S. government. Ironically, it's part of the reason we started using the naval base at Guantanamo Bay as a prison in the first place back in 1991 (see how Gitmo became a prison for background). We were quite willing to accept Cuban assurances of humane treatment of returnees back then. An earlier Attorney General said this:

While promising to return any Cubans found at sea, the US won agreement from the Cuban authorities that they will accept back anyone who is repatriated and not punish them. "They will suffer no adverse consequences or reprisals of any sort," Ms Reno said.

Cuba's word was good enough for AG Janet Reno back then. Why shouldn't Tunisia's word be good enough for AG Eric Holder now?

Involuntary repatriation was widely accepted, including by the U.S., when it was Vietnamese refugees being repatriated in the 1990s. Under the euphemism "Orderly Return Program," the government of Hong Kong as well as all other first asylum countries except Thailand forced unwilling refugees onto aircraft that shipped them back to Vietnam. The United Nations World Refugee Survey report for 1997 has details and this summary:

The government of the People’s Republic of China, which will reassume control of Hong Kong from Britain on July 1, 1997, has consistently said that it wants all Vietnamese refugees and asylum seekers out of Hong Kong by that date.

To achieve that, in 1996 Hong Kong greatly expanded its use of the Orderly Return Program (ORP), under which it returns Vietnamese involuntarily, in some instances using force to do so. In the four-year period 1992 through 1995, Hong Kong repatriated some 2,272 Vietnamese through the ORP. In 1996, it involuntarily returned 6,722 through the program. Newspaper reports suggested that, in 1996, the Hong Kong authorities had resorted to the use of force to implement its ORP program more often than in previous years.

If U.S. officials voiced much anguish over that forced repatriation, I don't recall hearing about it.

The most notorious example of involuntary repatriation is from World War II. The Yalta Agreement provided for the repatriation of Soviet nationals liberated from prison camps by U.S. forces, regardless of the wishes of the ex-prisoners. There was no illusion that this repatriation would be voluntary in the case of non-Russian Soviet nationals, or that it could be accomplished without force. The U.S. Army even wrote a manual of procedures for forcible repatriation of Soviet nationals that anticipated there would be stiff resistance and even suicides.

Why is the U.S. government so squeamish now? Involuntary repatriation was good enough for Cuban rafters, Vietnamese boat people, and Ukrainian prisoners of war. Why isn't it good enough for unlawful combatants captured in Afghanistan?

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