It was a favour, dressed up as a snub. When the United States cut a deal last week to send four Muslim Uighurs from Guantánamo Bay to Bermuda, it did so behind Britain’s back—not out of spite but compassion. Washington’s tin ear for Commonwealth protocol may be legendary. But even it knew London would bristle at being cut out of the loop on a matter of national security. Bermuda, after all, remains a self-governing protectorate of the United Kingdom, which means foreign governments doing business with it are supposed to give the mother country courtesy calls on issues that might carry foreign policy implications.
But as the former detainees roamed the beaches of their new island home, it became increasingly clear that Uncle Sam had spared Britain a massive diplomatic headache. The Guantánamo Uighurs are part of a Muslim separatist movement hailing from China’s far northwestern territory, which Beijing treats as a terrorist threat. Any country that took them in risked diplomatic or economic recriminations from China—though by all accounts the men posed negligible risk. By the weekend, senior U.S. officials were confirming that they had deliberately kept the transfer deal with Bermuda secret, providing the U.K. with some much-needed deniability.
Whether Beijing is buying it is anyone’s guess. But America’s use of deception in the Uighurs’ case is a measure of how far the global power dynamic has shifted since the war on terrorism began. With Congress loath to settle Guantánamo inmates on U.S. soil, the Obama administration had been left scouring the globe for allies willing to host the detainees—encountering China’s shadow at every turn. Canada, for one, declined repeated White House requests to take in some or all of the Uighurs, having already tweaked Beijing by publicly protesting its arrest of Huseyin Celil, a Uighur-Canadian currently imprisoned in China on dubious accusations of terrorism. The Celil affair is widely thought to have damaged Canada’s trading relationship with Beijing, and the prospect of making matters worse was evidently too much for the Harper government to risk. “They didn’t want to compromise trade,” says Mehmet Tohti, a prominent Uighur-Canadian who lobbied on behalf of the men. “I see this as a sign of weakness on Canada’s part.”
Certainly the case against the Guantánamo Uighurs was little better than the tissue of allegations that cost Celil his freedom. The four men in Bermuda counted among 22 who escaped China to Afghanistan in the summer of 2001 but were picked up a few months later by Pakistani forces during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan. They were then turned over to U.S. troops and sent to Guantánamo, where a legal battle ensued over their status as “enemy combatants.”
Five were subsequently sent to Albania, but the other 17 remained in legal limbo until a federal judge ruled last fall they must be released for lack of evidence. Sending them back to China was not an option; they would almost certainly face persecution. So the U.S. was forced to place them in distant countries with little or no trade with China. The South Pacific republic of Palau has agreed to accept 13, while Bermuda received the other four under a program for visiting workers. That prompted a stern rebuke from London, which has promised to review the terms of an agreement granting the island protectorate control over immigration matters.
To David Welch, director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto, the whole saga is a sign of changing times. “China’s growing importance in the world means people are paying more attention to it,” he says, “and the Chinese play hardball.” But others caution against blaming China for slowing Washington’s attempts to resolve its Guantánamo dilemma—or other countries for failing to help the U.S. out. Having created the “legal black hole” of Guantánamo in the first place, the U.S. bears responsibility to find a place for the detainees within its own borders, says Jeremy Paltiel, an international politics expert at Carleton University in Ottawa. “It’s cowardice,” he says of the White House’s efforts to foist the men on other countries. “Obama won’t confront his own Congress on this, after their own court said let these people go. Why should anybody else solve the problem for them?”
The answer, of course, lies in the time-tested willingness of U.S. allies to lend Uncle Sam a hand, knowing it’s in their long-term interest. Eight years after George W. Bush dispatched the bombers for Afghanistan, Washington needs more favours than ever. But if last week’s machinations are anything to go by, its old friends don’t want to be seen helping out. And Washington knows it.