Page last updated at 16:41 GMT, Friday, 12 June 2009 17:41 UK

Guantanamo and the mouse that roared

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent BBC News website

Queen Victoria
Gunboat diplomacy is not really an option open to London now

Great Britain is not amused.

It has expressed its displeasure that Bermuda, one of its 14 remaining colonies - or, as they are now called, "British overseas territories" - has accepted four Chinese Muslim Uighurs from Guantanamo Bay without consulting London.

Queen Victoria would have huffed and Lord Palmerston would have puffed - and perhaps sent a gunboat or at least a rude letter as he was wont to do when foreign secretary in the 19th Century.

Mrs Thatcher would have treated it as personal insult - as she did when her friend Ronald Reagan invaded the Caribbean island of Grenada in 1983 without telling her - or the Queen, who was (and is) Grenada's head of state.

Not that Mrs Thatcher minded the invasion - that was to get rid of some Marxist revolutionaries - but she wanted the proprieties observed.

These days it is a bit more polite. The Foreign Office in London issued a lofty and frosty statement to the effect that it had "underlined to the Bermuda government that it should have consulted the UK on whether this falls within their competence".

I bet the Bermudians are quaking at the "underlining" they have received. It is not a word Lord Palmerston would have used, I think.

(Update: I have received some e-mails from Bermuda from people who think that there is something else behind this - an attempt by the premier of Bermuda Ewart Brown to provoke a row with Britain as a way of furthering the cause of independence. His Progressive Labour Party favours independence, but public opinion appears to be against.

Britain has never been slow to demonstrate an imperial role in Bermuda. I remember going there in 1990 with Mrs Thatcher for a summit with President George Bush senior. It seemed to the media a strange place to meet and it looked as if Mrs Thatcher had chosen Bermuda in order to show that Britain still had somewhere it could hold such a meeting. It was fun though.

The British governor Sir Richard Gozney is quite clear that his agreement over the Uighurs was not given. "It was done without permission and the Government of Bermuda should have consulted with us because it carries with it foreign policy and security issues," he said.)

Handling China

The British government is worried not only about the offence to its dignity - and it does seem odd that it did not get wind of this plan.

Bermuda agreed to accept four former detainees of Guantanamo Bay

After all, it is supposed to be in a "special relationship" with the US government.

But perhaps the new administration has not yet caught up on the niceties of what powers the mother country retains over these "overseas territories". It is security, defence and foreign policy, if they ever ask.

London is also concerned about the effect on China, which has demanded the return of these Uighurs, whom it regards as dangerous "separatists" for supporting a Muslim state of East Turkestan in western China.

British diplomats in Beijing face quite a delicate mission in trying to explain what has happened.

On the one hand they want to push the blame onto those pesky Bermudians (one can imagine the Chinese hurrying discreetly for an atlas; perhaps the Brits helpfully brought one).

On the other hand, it is a considerable loss of face for the British ambassador to have to admit that the Bermudian mouse has nibbled the tail of the old British lion.

Maybe the Chinese will see it as a plot and a way for the treacherous British to blame someone else. In that way, honour, and face, might be saved.

In any event, this is what diplomats are paid to sort out.


Meanwhile, the Uighurs are, in the splendid understatement of their lawyer, "trying to get a sense of where they are".

Where they are is in the middle of the Atlantic, a bit over to the left-hand side.


They will find a most pleasant environment of picture pretty houses, flowers, greenery and the ocean all around, though subject to the occasional hurricane.

Bermuda has not been free of trouble. The British governor was assassinated by local black power militants in 1973.

It is quieter these days. The Uighurs might in due course find it a bit too quiet.

This footnote to the saga of Guantanamo Bay shows the problems that Washington is having in resettling some of the prisoners whom it no longer regards as a threat.

The Uighurs have always argued they were never a threat to the US and that, whatever they were doing in Afghanistan, it was not to fight the Americans.

Another group of Uighurs is expected to be given refuge on another island, this time in the Pacific - Palau, once administered by the US under UN trusteeship.

This far-flung dispersal smacks of a certain desperation by the Obama administration to be rid of the problem so the camp can be closed, as President Obama has promised, early next year.

And it now appears that the president is giving up on taking in ex-prisoners into the United States. The Uighurs would have been rather good candidates.

Declared by the Pentagon not to be a threat and their release ordered by a US judge, they could have joined a Uighur community in Northern Virginia, where many refugees from other conflicts also reside.

But it was all too controversial - so Bermuda and Palau were asked to help instead.

Except that nobody thought of calling London.

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