Dutch keep doors closed to Guantanamo detainees

Europe is eagerly awaiting the new US president, shown here on a July 24, 2008 file photo in Berlin, where a crowd of 200,000 people was reported cheering for the Democratic presidential candidate at the time.
By Mark Kranenburg in The Hague and Tom-Jan Meeus in Washington DC

The Netherlands rushed to Bush’s assistance in Afghanistan and Iraq. But no offers are forthcoming now that Obama is asking for help in closing down Guantanamo.

In just over a week Barack Obama will officially take on the presidency of the United States. A moment which Europe is eagerly awaiting. Expectations are high. But to what extent are European countries willing to help Obama bring about the 'change' on which he built his campaign?

Disappointment on that point is setting in in Washington. With regard to the attitude of the Netherlands, for instance, which has always strongly condemned the prison for suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, but which is not willing to cooperate with its closing down, promised by Obama, by taking in detainees.

It is estimated that the controversial facility currently houses some 250 detainees. The US claims to have serious enough suspicions to try about 80 of them. It has been determined that the remaining prisoners may be released. But not everyone can simply return home.

Some of the men run the risk of being prosecuted or tortured in their home countries. They have also been described by the US as the “worst of the worst” for a long time and not everyone is willing to open their doors to such individuals. So far only Albania has granted five Uyghurs asylum. They would reportedly be tortured if returned to China.

Portugal publicly announced in December its willingness to take in this category of prisoner, Germany is considering it.

The Netherlands however is not opening its doors. “The facility for those who are not being tried but will be released is the primary responsibility of the United States. We did not set up or support Guantanamo Bay. We did not make these mistakes. I do not see why we should grant asylum to people who are being released from there,” Dutch foreign affairs minister Maxime Verhagen told parliament two months ago. And the Netherlands maintains that position, a spokesperson for the ministry of foreign affairs says.


“Tremendously disappointing,” responds Sarah Mendelson of the Center for Strategic Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC. “The Obama administration wants to restore the US’s ties with the international community, he should be able to expect something from a country like the Netherlands.”

Mendelson has contacts with many European embasies in DC. Officially she has no ties with Barack Obama’s incoming administration. But many European diplomats in this area know: if you want to send Obama a signal about Guantanamo Bay (‘Gitmo’) or Afghanistan, she is the person to talk to.

It is one of the peculiarities of the transition period in Washington. On paper the US is still governed by George W. Bush. And the administrative code in the US stipulates that until Obama takes office, his people may not officially establish any contact with foreign governments. That is why there are intermediaries, like Sarah Mendelson. She has been working on the promised dismantling of Gitmo for months. In September she wrote in a report that assistance from other countries will be essential. The US itself does not want to grant asylum to the detainees.

At the end of last year she held a meeting with diplomats from practically all European countries to feel out what these countries would be willing to do to assist Obama by taking in released detainees. “After the difficult years under Bush we assumed that European countries would be more willing to work with Obama,” Mendelson says. The symbolism of such a gesture is unmistakeable: the violation of human rights at Gitmo under Bush grew into a divisive element between Europe and the US. Portugal and Germany responded positively.

Fair trial

“Someone like Verhagen, who is always talking about human rights, should really be able to show something on this point,” says Alexander Pechtold, leader of the parliamentary faction of Dutch left-wing liberal party D66. He feels the Netherlands should grant political asylum to a limited number of detainees who cannot be prosecuted but who also cannot return to their home countries.

Officially the Netherlands takes the position that it will only cooperate in opening its doors to released detainees once the EU reaches an accord on this matter. This does not inspire much confidence on the part of the US. “What happens when European countries get together to discuss something?” Mendelson scoffs. “Usually nothing.”

Minister Verhagen has promised support with regard to the approximately 80 detainees who could be tried on the basis of the suspicions against them. He wants to work with colleague Ernst Hirsch Ballin, the Dutch justice minister, to look into how the Netherlands can help ensure that the international terrorists are given a fair trial. The minister suggested earlier that the Gitmo detainees could be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

A carrot being dangled, say insiders. Most Gitmo detainees are suspected of crimes from 2001 or early 2002. “And the ICC does not have jurisdiction for cases from before July 1, 2002,” says Dutch lawyer Geert-Jan Knoops, who has been involved in a high profile case of a Gitmo suspect before the supreme court in the US.

Insiders say that one possibility now being considered is an ad hoc tribunal set up in The Hague by the UN Security Council, modelled after the Yugoslavia tribunal. But the US has little interest in this option. Obama’s prospective attorney general Eric Holder has said in the past that he thinks the US should try the ‘serious’ Gitmo suspects on US soil.


And so Washington remains amazed. Obama is as popular in the Netherlands as Bush is unpopular. Yet the Netherlands was willing to support Bush’s controversial policy in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past five years, while it now looks like the country has nothing to offer Obama regarding two of his most important foreign policy projects.

Because the Netherlands only has bad news in store for the new president with regard to Afghanistan. Obama wants to improve the situation there with additional troops and increased attention. Yet the Dutch administration has announced that its current mission in southern Afghanistan will definitely be terminated at the end of 2010, precisely at a time when Obama is hoping for increased contributions of international troops. Mendelson: “It's my understanding that the Dutch have a love affair with Obama. But you don't get things for free in life. So the question if, does the love for the new president have any coguanntent?’’

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