President Joe Biden aims to formally close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp within his first presidential term. The United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed on 7 June 2021, during a hearing of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, that the Biden administration is “actively looking” into establishing the position of a State Department envoy for the closure of the detention camp. This announcement is a monumental example of a proposed security policy that, to critics of Guantanamo Bay, represents a step forward in closing a symbol of detainee abuse and human rights violations.
Initially, the Biden administration planned for an aggressive push to close the camp. However, a more low-profile approach has since been adopted to prevent political outcry. Biden’s administration plans to quietly transfer some detainees to foreign countries, sign an executive order directing the camp’s closure, and convince Congress to allow the transfer of the remaining detainees to mainland US detention centres.
As of June 2021, there are 40 prisoners still detained. When Biden took office, six detainees were eligible for removal to foreign countries. In May 2021, Biden approved three more detainees for release to foreign states that will agree to impose maximum security conditions on them. However, several detainees, including defendants of the September 11 attacks and those charged with war crimes, pose too great a security risk for international transfer. They will therefore have to be detained on US soil.
Biden’s aim to close Guantanamo Bay is a continuation of the Obama administration’s goals and a divergence from Trump-era policy. In 2018, Trump signed an executive order to keep the camp open and end the process for reviewing cases and releasing detainees. His administration only saw one detainee transferred to another country.
Although the goals are similar, the Biden administration’s plan to close Guantanamo Bay also significantly differs from the Obama administration’s approach. Firstly, Biden plans to close Guantanamo Bay before the end of his first term, a less ambitious target than Obama’s ultimately empty promise of closing the camp within his first year. Furthermore, unlike the Obama administration, Biden officials have decided against setting up a parallel office and envoy at the Pentagon for closing the camp. Instead, the administration plans to eventually appoint a State Department envoy, thus framing the closure as an issue related to foreign policy rather than defence. The administration is also expected not to propose transferring detainees to US military installations, another departure from the Obama administration’s approach. This divergence is particularly significant as it confirms that the administration is planning to repatriate current detainees or house them in prisons on the US mainland, instead of transferring them to other offshore detention centres. However, the Biden administration, like the Obama administration, will probably use the cost of maintaining the detention camp to try to convince Congress to reverse a current ban on domestic transfers.
The Biden administration is likely to face severe obstacles to closing the camp, much like the Obama administration. The political opposition Obama faced was a primary reason why his administration failed to close Guantanamo Bay. In 2011, Congress placed heavy restrictions on transfers from the camp in its yearly defence authorisation bill which essentially stopped Obama from transferring detainees to facilities in the US, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Moreover, the Bill also prohibited the use of funds to close the prison or build facilities to house detainees on the US mainland. Similarly, the Biden administration is already facing political opposition. In May, eight Republican senators sent a letter to Biden which urged him to maintain the camp and keep the current prisoners detained there, citing security risks as the reason for their opposition.
Another obstacle to closing the camp are the issues to do with releasing detainees. Responding to the Biden administration’s approval to release three more prisoners, Amnesty International USA’s Director of Security with Human Rights, Daphne Eviatar, said,
“It is not enough for the Biden administration to announce that more detainees are cleared for release when the government has not made any plans for how it will let cleared detainees finally experience freedom”.
Some of the detainees who have previously been approved for release have been waiting for 10 years for another country to agree to take them. The US has to make sure that the countries that agree to take in previous detainees will also agree to continue to jail them or put them on trial and stop them from travelling. A significant number of detainees also originate from politically unstable countries, such as Yemen, which have governments that may not be able to adequately monitor repatriates and prevent them from reengaging in terrorism.
Calls for the closure of the camp have been voiced since the camp’s conception with critics citing accusations of human rights violations such as torture, sexual abuse, and leaving detainees in legal limbo with some detainees being detained for almost 20 years without charge. However, Biden’s administration also faces significant political opposition and practical barriers to closing the camp. Regardless of whether the Biden administration ultimately manages to close the camp, his attempts to do so will nonetheless be a defining feature of his Presidency.