Yemeni Detainees: An Obstacle to Closing Guantanamo Bay


On January 22, 2009, United States President Barack Obama issued Executive Order 13492, calling for the prompt closure of the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO). [1] Nearly eight years later, GTMO remains open due to a myriad of complicating factors, notably the obstinate dilemma of moving those detainees that are originally from Yemen. The difficulty in finding an agreeable and stable country to resettle the lingering Yemeni detainees will likely impede efforts to close the detention facilities for the foreseeable future.

In the process of closing the prison, detainees of Guantanamo Bay are either approved for repatriation, transfer, or resettlement. Yemenis are the most represented nationality among detainees. Of the remaining 59 detainees, 27 captives are from Yemen. 12 of these Yemeni detainees are currently approved for transfer. [2] Generally, transferred GTMO detainees are returned to their country of origin. However, this significant portion of the GTMO population cannot be transferred to or resettled in Yemen due to the region’s instability as a result of two decades of civil war. The conflict between the Hadi government and the Houthi rebels rages on despite increasingly urgent mediation attempts orchestrated by the United Nations (UN) and concerned international powers. For peace talks to resume, the Houthis have demanded President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi’s resignation as a condition of any UN peace plan. This stipulation has been met with silence from the Hadi government thus far, but it will most certainly impede negotiations. [3] A US push to reinvigorate peace talks would have wide-reaching benefits, and the stabilization of Yemen could – on a lesser scale – ensure that Yemeni detainees can return to their home countries. An end to the conflict is hardly something that Obama can achieve before he leaves office, but until the warring parties reconcile, conditions in Yemen will continue to deteriorate.

Meanwhile, Yemen’s poverty rates, dearth of governance, and violations of international humanitarian law have created an inhospitable environment for its citizens, much less returning prisoners in need or resettlement or continuing captivity. In Yemen, 14.4 million people are in need of food, 19.4 million people are in need of clean water and sanitation, and 14.1 million people are in need of healthcare. An estimated two million Yemenis have been displaced from their homes. Yemen’s economy has also been ravaged, resulting in failures to pay government salaries and provide public services. [4] Yemen’s eroding government is therefore incapable of resettling, monitoring, or imprisoning transferred detainees, as evidenced by the mass prison break of 2015, when approximately 1,200 prisoners – including suspected terrorists – escaped. [5]

Thus, for former detainees intending to resettle, conditions are bleak. In addition to the escalating humanitarian crisis, the instability in Yemen has created a safe haven for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which already presented a capable threat to U.S. national security according to US Central Command. [6] An influx of formerly imprisoned suspected terrorists would provide an appealing sample of recruits for AQAP, especially considering the scarcity of legitimate ventures for deradicalized individuals. Of those former prisoners that have returned to Yemen, some have joined AQAP and other have been killed as a result of the civil war or drone strikes. [7] Whether for former captives looking to begin again or for detainees that still require four secure walls, Yemen is not an option.

Therefore, because the US Congress has blocked attempts to move detainees to the United States and because Yemen is not a viable option for prisoner transfer or resettlement, the US must petition other countries to assume the detainees. Oman and the United Arab Emirates have accepted the most nonnative detainees, with each receiving 20 Yemenis for resettlement. [8] The 12 Yemenis currently approved for transfer are waiting on a country to agree to receive and resettle them. [9] Diplomatic relations, in addition to incentives for accepting detainees, could expedite the transfer process before Obama yields his executive power. However, the US is completely dependent on other countries for this option, and currently many countries are resistant to accept refugees at all, let alone former GTMO prisoners.

As President-elect Trump assumes the office, pressures to clear out GTMO are assured to wind down. In fact, Trump has promised to fill the detention facility back up. [10] Much is unclear regarding how President-elect Trump envisions GTMO in the coming four years, but as his presidency becomes more tangible many of his campaign promises have shifted to more moderate proposals. GTMO may not necessarily see an up tick in residency, but given the US government’s general inertia it is highly likely that the prison population will remain constant throughout Trump’s presidency. In regards to the limited options for the Yemeni detainees, this does have an upside. Yemenis returning to their home country face a deadly environment attributed to the hostilities of the civil war. Resettlement in another country would be preferable for most detainees, but if no countries are willing or able to accept more GTMO prisoners, then waiting in GTMO may be safer than encountering hunger, warring parties, or remotely piloted Predators.












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About the Author 

Casey Madden is a 2016 fall intern for the ERA Institute’s Armed Conflicts Project (ACP).

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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