Barack Obama has announced that he will close Guantanamo. Throughout the world, this announcement will be understood as an introduction to a new kind of American leadership, a repudiation of the unilateralism of the Bush administration, and a return to diplomacy and the rule of law.
Closing Guantanamo will be a complicated process, which must be accomplished in phases. But the first step clearly is the settlement of the 50 or 60 detainees who have been cleared for release but have nowhere to go. These men have been called the “Guantanamo refugees.” Some of these men are stateless, but most of them simply can’t be returned to their home countries because their lives would be in danger there.
A number of European countries have recently indicated a willingness to take in some of the Guantanamo refugees. But the U.S. must also take some of them.
A group of 17 ethnic Uyghurs from western China have been at Guantanamo almost since its opening. From very early on, they were known to be innocent. In September 2008, a federal court officially cleared them of “enemy combatant” status. In October, Federal Court Judge Ricardo Urbina ordered them released into the U.S, where Uyghur-American families were waiting to take them in. Justice Department lawyers obtained a stay pending appeal to the Court of Appeals. The appeal was briefed and argued in late November. The Government argued that only the President has the power to order the transfer of detainees and their release into the U.S. The appeal has not yet been decided by the Court. As President, Obama should either dismiss the appeal and comply with Judge Urbina’s order or exercise his power as President to bring the Uyghurs to the U.S.