Since his first days in office, President Obama and his administration have tried to respond to domestic and international pressure to close Guantanamo prison in Cuba and find an alternative location for its hundreds of prisoners. So far, no viable options have been presented and the situation remains unresolved. However, this may be about to change.
In the past few years, the United States and Yemen have strengthened their military and political ties to the point where America uses bases in Yemeni territory to strike al-Qaeda operatives. This partnership also relates to the Guantanamo prison issue. Of the prison’s 155 detainees, 90 are Yemeni nationals, and 56 of the 77 prisoners already approved for transfer are from Yemen.
Yemen’s foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, recently revealed that his government was considering the possibility of building what he called a rehabilitation facility for the Yemeni prisoners released from Guantanamo. This facility would be located on the island of Socotra, a few hundred miles south of Yemen in the Gulf of Aden.
Soon after this pronouncement, many Yemeni locals criticized the idea, arguing that such a facility would negatively affect local communities’ economies and the environment. Tourism, a key factor in the local economy, would be especially impacted. Abduljameel Muhammad, of Socotra Eco Tours, a local travel agency, points to the fact that locals would have to be evacuated from the area, rendering tourism impossible.
Furthermore, local wildlife and the island’s unique environment would be harmed. Socotra Island has hundreds of unique species of flora and fauna, plus a local population of 50,000 people who retain ancestral traditions and speak their own unwritten language. If a rehabilitation facility is built in this unique environment, hundreds of Yemeni and American forces would be required to patrol and maintain it. Environmental and population challenges would inevitably be difficult to manage.
So far, the White House has refused to discuss the matter, and responses from Yemeni officials have been restrained since the foreign minister’s initial declarations. Nevertheless, it is clear that both sides are looking for a solution regarding the Yemeni nationals that may be released from Guantanamo. On the American side, the Obama administration is keen on finding a solution as soon as it can, while the Yemeni government must find a way to incarcerate its nationals after they are transferred.
The impact such a facility would have on Socotra Island is certain and worrisome. Meanwhile, the island’s geographic isolation and unique characteristics present a great opportunity for both sides to find a solution. The United States should partner with the Yemeni government to conduct a conclusive study of the impacts on both the environment and local communities. Also, both administrations should engage with the locals and compensate them with viable economic alternatives. A plan to preserve the local environment should be devised and discussed with the islanders to ensure the impact would be reduced to an acceptable level.
Closing the Guantanamo prison is impracticable until a viable alternative is presented. Likewise, Yemeni officials need to devise an effective way to deal with the prison’s detainees. A rehabilitation facility on Socotra Island could resolve both issues, but it is important to ensure that such a facility would not severely disrupt the locals’ way of life. The Obama administration should work closely with its Yemeni counterpart for a solution while assuring local communities that all the potential impacts would be addressed and that locals would be adequately compensated. With a strong partnership between the two countries, a viable alternative to Guantanamo is a very distinct possibility.
Ted Ferraz is a first year graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs, earning a Master’s Degree in Security Policy Studies, focusing on Energy Security and Defense Analysis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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