Survivor: Gitmo Edition
Why is Obama sending the Uighurs to Palau?
Flickr user CasaDeQuesoBet the food's better too: The nation of Palau, known for its rock islands, will accept Gitmo detainees.
Flickr user CasaDeQuesoBet the food’s better too: The nation of Palau, known for its rock islands, will accept Gitmo detainees.
As of yesterday, relatively few Americans had ever heard of the tiny island nation of Palau. Indeed, the Pacific archipelago, home to just 20,000, was probably most famous for hosting the 10th season of the CBS Survivor series, which played up its lushly tropical islands and crystal clear waters.
But last night, Palau found itself in the limelight again when the New York Times reported that the island had agreed to accept, at least temporarily, the Uighur Chinese detainees held in the U.S. detention facility in Guantnamo Bay, Cuba.
On Survivor, contestants had to swim long distances, eat balut eggs, and kill snakes. But in exclusive interviews today with Foreign Policy, the Palauan ambassadors to the United States and the United Nations promised the Uighurs nothing less than paradise — and said that U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had reached out to Palau’s president regarding the detainees.
The Uighurs had posed a conundrum for the Obama administration. In 2005, they were declared no longer enemy combatants; two years ago, a review board said they were approved for release. But if sent to China, the Uighurs would certainly be imprisoned and possibly executed, as China considers them domestic terrorists. They were personae non grata internationally, too. Two years ago, Albania accepted five, but has said it would take no more. Nearly 100 countries have rejected U.S. requests to take the remaining 17.
And so, the United States turned to Palau — a protectorate until 1994, a charter member of the U.S. coalition of the willing in Iraq, a virtually crime-free nation, a user of the U.S. dollar, a matrilineal society, and, in the words of its president, America’s best friend.
The country’s ambassador to the United Nations, Stuart Beck, says that Obama and Clinton contacted Palauan President Johnson Toribiong to ask if he would accept the Uighurs. (The White House could not immediately confirm or deny the claim.) They sent a delegation, including Daniel Fried, the Obama administration official charged with closing Guantnamo, to visit Palau’s capital last week.
And, according to one account citing U.S. officials in the Associated Press, they offered Palau an aid package worth around $11.7 million per detainee — more than the country’s annual GDP — to sweeten the deal. (One U.S. official contacted by Foreign Policy said, The AP story that suggested we are offering $200M for this is false. Our assistance relationship with Palau is longstanding and separate.)
Palau accepted, saying it welcomed the unwanted Uighurs for humanitarian reasons. Today, Toribiong released a statement saying he is honored and proud to be called upon by Washington. This is but a small thing that we can do to thank our best friend and ally for all it has done for Palau.
Beck puts it more simply: As far as the Palauans are concerned, this is a request from the United States for help. So the natural response is to say, Yeah, what can we do?’
And what will they do? The idea is to assimilate, educate, and employ the Uighurs — to give them a semblance of a normal comfortable life.
To this end, Palau has sent a group of high-ranking government officials — including Minister of State Sandra S. Pierantozzi, Minister of Health Stevenson Kuartei, and President of Palau Community College Patrick Tellei — to Guantnamo to interview the detainees.
Beck says that the team hopes to assess what skill sets and professional interests the Uighurs have. They were apparently mostly small-time traders of leather and other goods back at home; Palau’s main industries are tourism and subsistence farming and fishing. So, for job retraining and general betterment, we have an excellent community college, Palau’s Ambassador to the United States Hersey Kyota says. If they want to earn a degree, they’ll have the opportunity.
And they’ll be living, freely, in what both officials describe as paradise. The country is home to some of the Pacific’s most spectacular beaches, coral reefs, forests, and wildlife. It’s a far cry from the deserts of western China, from which the Uighurs came. But Beck promises it takes little getting used to — You wouldn’t mind being sent to Palau! he quips.
Although it’s unclear whether Palau will eventually grant the detainees permanent asylum — issuing them passports and making them citizens — both ambassadors stressed their hope that the Uighurs feel at home. Palau has a small Chinese community and a handful of Bangladeshi Muslims, to whom the government may reach out to help assimilate the Uighurs, Kyota says. The country also has complete freedom of religion and a large expatriate population, making it a welcoming place.
Indeed, both ambassadors stressed how friendly, nice, and relaxed Palauans are. I’m sure… there will be opposition [to accepting the Uighurs]. But that’s very usual anywhere, Kyota thinks. The bottom line is that the leadership of Palau has agreed to receive them. We did it really for humanitarian reasons. I’m sure they’ll adjust to our population.
Plus, Beck says, Palauans have always accepted people who wash up on their shores.
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