Europe’s governments are under pressure today to back their words of support for Barack Obama with action to help the new US President close Guantanamo Bay.
Pledges after last week’s inauguration to forge a new relationship with the incoming administration face an early test at talks in Brussels between EU foreign ministers.
On the agenda is how far the European countries are prepared to go in absorbing Guantanamo detainees cleared for release.
The problem is that EU leaders have warmly welcomed President Obama’s decision to close the infamous military detention centre, but are less ready to grant asylum to any of the 250 prisoners still being held but considered fit for release.
When the centre closes within a year the US authorities intend bringing to trial in America those suspected of serious terrorist crimes, but want European help to take as many as 60 of those against whom there is insufficient evidence, or who could face torture or ill-treatment in their own countries.
The UK government has already brought home 13 detainees who are either UK nationals or who have rights of residence and has requested the return of two further residents, Binyam Mohamed and Shaker Aamer. But yesterday Foreign office minister Bill Rammell indicated the government was “not planning to go beyond that” and take in Guantanamo detainee with no UK links.
Meanwhile, the governments of Portugal, France, Germany, Ireland, Portugal and Sweden, have indicated readiness to consider resettling some of the others.
But the Dutch government has been most outspoken against doing so – arguing that Washington opened the camp and should take responsibility for those it incarcerated.
Last night UK Labour MEP and human rights campaigner Richard Howitt said Europe should offer practical help: “President Obama has made an early signal of intent to the world with the Guantanamo decision and it would be a strategic disaster if Europe was to hesitate in its response.
“Europe must reciprocate by aiding the rehabilitation of prisoners, co-operating on outstanding prosecutions but above all by demonstrating a willingness to share the burden of resettling inmates denied their liberty and their rights for far too long.
“There is clear precedent for a common EU stand on taking in non-nationals, and this is the time for Europe again to demonstrate its unity as well as its commitment.”
The precedent, he went on, was set by the Church of the Nativity siege in Bethlehem in 2002 following which 13 Palestinian gunmen were taken in by Belgium, Greece, Spain, Ireland, Italy and Portugal as part of an EU-brokered peace deal.
Mr Howitt said: “A European fudge now would leave the sincerity of our long-standing calls to close Guantanamo under serious doubt and send a marker across the Atlantic of a European Union not itself serious about change.
“If we want partnership with the United States in tackling global problems, we have to offer partnership in return.
“That can begin with a clear statement of our intention to see the final prisoner walking away from the closed gates of Guantanamo.”
Human Rights organisations says that 60 of the 250 current detainees risk persecution and torture if returned to their own countries. Of those 60 non-nationals of EU countries, it is claimed that at least eight have been residents of Italy, four in the UK, two in Austria, one in Belgium and one in France. So far the UK is the only EU country to have resettled any of the Guantanamo inmates, and no firm decisions are likely at today’s Brussels talks, which will be attended by Foreign Secretary David Miliband.
One concern is that, of about 500 detainees released by the Bush administration, the US Defence Department estimates that 61 have “returned to the battlefield” – including some who were not active militants before they were taken to Guantanamo Bay.
But Europe’s human rights watchdog, the Council of Europe, says European countries should help.
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, said: “While the US has created the Guantanamo problem and has the primary responsibility for correcting the injustices, there are strong arguments for European assistance in closing Guantanamo Bay.
“I urge European governments to open their doors to a small number (of the detainees). Such assistance is both the right thing to do and of critical importance in our push for the prompt closure of Guantanamo Bay.”