By WOLA Executive Director Joy Olson
Note: this op-ed was originally published in Roll Call on May 18, 2015
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently made public a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing security concerns around the December 2014 transfer of six Guantánamo detainees to Uruguay. I have followed this transfer closely, as Uruguay is only the second Latin American country to resettle Guantánamo detainees. Like Royce’s staff, I too traveled to Uruguay and interviewed U.S. and Uruguayan government officials and those helping to resettle the former detainees. But while Royce’s staff saw a potential security threat, I saw a human tragedy.
Royce’s letter expresses concern about prospective security problems posed by the former detainees. Instead, let’s review what actually has happened.
Six men held by the United States in Guantánamo, some for 13 years, were resettled in Uruguay in December 2014. They were never charged with, or convicted of a crime; in fact, we know several of them were sold for bounty. The group includes a cook, a salesmen and jeweler.
Prior to their release, six U.S. government agencies, including the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Defense, unanimously agreed these men did not present a threat. At this point, there are 57 such cleared detainees at Guantánamo. Some of them have been cleared for as long as five years, yet are still kept in prison.
Former President José Mujica of Uruguay agreed to resettle former detainees because, like many Uruguayans who opposed the country’s military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s, he had been a political prisoner.
Uruguay’s Central Union, the PIT/CNT, agreed to temporarily house the former detainees in a building it had used as a battered women’s shelter. The union’s first concern was how the neighbors would receive the men. The concern was quickly answered as neighbors, who did not speak Arabic, brought gifts: mint plants for tea, bread and flowers.
Royce’s letter says housing the men at the union’s house “poses a potential risk to the safety and security of our Embassy and its employees,” but there have been no security problems.
The former detainees, referred to in Uruguay as the Guantanameros, suffer from a set of experiences that make their transition back to a normal life difficult. They have been in prison for more than a decade; their lives have been micro-managed and the only individual control they truly exercised in captivity was in the form of hunger strikes. They are refugees in a foreign land. They were taken from Guantánamo and placed on the other side of the world in a country whose language they do not speak and where they have no family. Additionally, many of them are torture survivors. These are traumas that would dramatically impact anyone, not just former Guantánamo detainees.
So what has happened in Uruguay? It has been a difficult transition for the men. They still haven’t been reunited with their families. They are struggling with the language. The men believe they have been wronged, and they want more help to build a life in Uruguay.
Now, four of them have camped out in front of the U.S. Embassy to demand that their former captors help with their transition. It’s a technique they learned in Guantánamo: make a request and wait.
Politicians need to stop trying to create a security crisis where none exists. The detainees’ peaceful protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Montevideo is just that, a peaceful protest by people who believe that they have been wronged.
What are the facts? Dozens of men have been detained in Guantánamo for a decade, without charge or trial. This is a human rights violation. To close Guantánamo, the U.S. needs the help of countries such as Uruguay, willing to help solve this humanitarian crisis. These countries should be admired and appreciated. U.S. politicians need to learn the difference between a threat and a sad situation largely of our own making.