Switzerland should agree to host Guantanamo detainees

A protest against the Guantanamo Bay detention camp outside of the US Capitol in Washington DC, US, 9 January, 2023. (Keystone/Reuters/Sarah Silbiger)

Some detainees who have been cleared for release from the US military prison cannot be returned to their country. For Cyprien Fluzin, teaching assistant and doctoral researcher at the Geneva Academy, Switzerland has a moral, but also political, interest in receiving some of them.

Earlier this month, discussions between Switzerland and the United States on the possible resettlement of former detainees from the Guantánamo Bay detention camp were reported in the Swiss media. The prospect drew mixed reactions in the country’s public opinion and among some elected officials.

Kafkaesque detention

Back in  January 2002, the US had designated its naval military base in Guantánamo Bay, located on land leased from Cuba since 1903, to receive hundreds of men captured around the world following Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001. The abductions were carried out outside of any legal framework, with US authorities maintaining that the individuals could be held for as long as necessary, and that the country’s domestic law did not apply to this piece of foreign territory subjected to US military jurisdiction.

In addition to its weak legal justifications, this extraordinary rendition programme had also relied on poor intelligence. As a result, of the 780 men initially brought to Guantanamo, including around 15 children, the majority were quickly released. The rest were prosecuted by military commissions created under questionable conditions and procedures. Twenty years later, only a handful have been found guilty of terrorism-related charges, with ten others still awaiting trial. Another dozen, victims of a Kafkaesque absurdity, remain in captivity, despite never facing charges.

Failed closure

In 2009, when former US president Barack Obama ordered the closure of the camp, one of the challenges he faced was that some of the individuals could not be returned to their countries due to the persecution they would be exposed to. After the Republican opposition blocked the transfer of detainees to US soil, Obama turned to third countries to take the men in, in exchange for favours that were kept confidential – and sums of money that would, in principle, cover the costs of reintegration. Some ended up in Oman, the Maldives, Estonia, Cape Verde and even in Switzerland, which received three detainees in 2009 and 2010.

These efforts, which were paused under the presidency of Donald Trump, resumed under Joe Biden’s administration, but by some accounts, appear to be stalling, as US diplomats struggle to find third countries willing to welcome former detainees. Switzerland, already reluctant to repatriate its own citizens detained in Syria since the fall of the Islamic State – in camps described as “Europe’s Guantanamo” – was not an obvious choice.

In recent years, the question of whether to bring home Swiss nationals affiliated with the terrorist group has indeed remained an extremely sensitive and controversial issue, in the political arena as well as within public opinion. This is in spite of legal, political, and even security arguments that indicate that repatriation is the best course of action, whether for the purpose of prosecution or rehabilitation, or to prevent some of these individuals from possibly rejoining the Islamic State, at a time when it appears to be regaining strength in Syria.

Moral (and political) imperative

However, for Switzerland, the question of the relocations from Guantanamo is different. Taking in the infamous US detention camp’s inmates who cannot return to their own countries is a moral imperative. It would right 20 years of injustice, which have stained the human rights record of the US and its allies alike.

Furthermore, the transfer would not present a security risk for Switzerland. Out of 32 prisoners remaining in Guantanamo, 18 have been cleared for transfer by the Periodic Review Board, a US body tasked with assessing whether the detainees pose a threat to US security and known for its rigour. Additionally, the three former detainees who have been in Switzerland for a decade have also shown no signs of posing a threat.

For Switzerland, welcoming the men may represent an opportunity to rise to the occasion and live up to its reputation. As the birthplace of Henri Dunant, founder of the Red Cross movement, and as the country where modern international humanitarian law came to life – through the adoption of the Geneva Conventions in 1949 – Switzerland would have much to lose if it were to turn its back on this singular past and global identity by refusing to take on these men.

Finally, from a self-serving perspective, it is clear that the move would also be in Switzerland’s political interest. It is indeed rather uncommon to find oneself in a position to be owed a favour by the world's leading global power. This is a fact that Switzerland cannot afford to ignore, at a time when its relations with the European Union have been conspicuously poor for many years.

Against this backdrop, should the US request it, Switzerland should agree to receive the Guantanamo detainees. Pragmatically, the decision would be reasonable. Morally, it would be the right thing to do.

Cyprien Fluzin, is a doctoral researcher and teaching assistant in international law at the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights and adjunct lecturer at Sciences Po (Paris).

This article was published first in French in Le Temps. Articles from third party websites are not licensed under Creative Commons and cannot be republished without the editor’s consent.