Abandoned at Guantánamo - Guantánamo Detainees Trapped by Inaction

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There are a number of detainees at Guantánamo from “high-risk” countries where, should they be forcibly returned, they would be in danger of persecution or torture. These men need to be offered humanitarian protection in the United States and third countries, where they will not be at risk. 

The humanitarian crisis that exists in Guantánamo should be approached like any other – with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United States, and other countries creating and implementing a plan of action to end the indefinite detention of individuals in an extrajudicial prison. The United States has already transferred detainees from Guantánamo to high-risk countries despite credible individualized fears of persecution or torture upon their repatriation.


In the aftermath of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. military detained countless men fleeing the violence. Some were involved in the war, but most were not. According to the U.S. military’s own documents, in the chaos of wartime, most captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan were sold to the U.S. military for money or as part of tribal or local grievances; others were picked up far from any battlefield. With no process to sort through the men detained, many were shuffled through military facilities in Afghanistan before being transported to the now-infamous U.S. military base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Entering into their seventh year of detention, by the U.S. government’s own assertions, many continue to languish in Guantánamo simply because they have nowhere to go – their home countries would persecute them if they were forcibly returned, and the United States and its allies have refused to intervene to provide them safe haven. These men are literally trapped by inaction.

The Problem: Trapped by Inaction

Despite the strong statements made by myriad countries for the closure of Guantánamo, relatively few countries have thus far agreed to accept these abandoned detainees – non-citizens in need of safe haven because they would face torture or persecution if repatriated to their home countries. The need for countries to intervene to provide protection for these at-risk detainees is critical. The possibility that men will be sent by the U.S. government to their home countries despite their legitimate fear of persecution or torture is not an abstract concern. The U.S. government has forcibly returned Guantánamo detainees to countries that are recognized to have committed egregious human rights abuses – including extrajudicial killings, torture and disappearances – despite pleas not to be sent there. Further, the U.S. government has vehemently resisted any attempt by detainees and their attorneys to halt transfers, even where very specific, verifiable and objective fear of persecution and torture exists. In passing the Military Commissions Act in 2006, Congress aimed to limit judicial review for the men imprisoned at Guantánamo, including by prohibiting them from legally challenging transfers to countries where they will likely be tortured or subjected to persecution.

The Solution: A Global Response

International humanitarian crises generally need international responses, including the cooperation of multiple States with the capacity to safely protect detainees unable to return to their home countries for fear of torture or persecution. Guantánamo’s abandoned detainees are an international problem requiring an international solution. As evidenced by the U.S. government’s own records, most of these men were wrongly detained and present no threat to the United States or any other country. The international community should accept responsibility to find them safe haven. These men must not face the impossible choice of continued indefinite detention or forcible repatriation to torture or other persecution.

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