Palau: Next Stop After Gitmo?

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Keren Su / Corbis

An aerial view of Rock Islands, Palau

For a small group of Guantánamo Bay detainees, life is moving from one island paradise to another. The United States announced Tuesday that it will transfer as many as 17 Chinese Muslims from the Cuba prison to Palau, a small Pacific island nation 500 miles east of the Philippines. While finding countries willing to take Guantanamo detainees has been daunting, the task of finding a new home for the seventeen Uighurs — a Turkic ethnic group from northwestern China — has been one of the most delicate. Thanks to conflicting rulings by U.S. courts, the Uighurs are stuck in legal limbo; meanwhile, efforts to send them to other countries have been stymied by Beijing, which is demanding they be returned to China (where they could face the death penalty for taking part in Islamic separatist movement) and has pressured nations into refusing them entry. Washington has refused to release the prisoners to China, instead striking an agreement with Palau, which maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan instead of the mainland.

"What they will encounter in Palau is paradise," Stuart Beck, Palau's permanent United Nations representative, told the New York Times. With an average temperature of 82 degrees Fahrenheit and sprawling, picturesque beaches at every turn, it may even be hard for the prisoners to argue with that statement. With just 20,000 people spread over 8 main islands and 250 smaller ones, Palau is one of the world's least-populated countries. There are a mere 391 people living in the capital, Melekeok; Palau's bicameral legislature employs a paltry 9 Senators and 16 members of the House of Delegates.

For thousands of years, Palauan society was matrilineal, a tradition their ancestors are believed to have brought over from the Indonesian island of Java. Land, money, and titles passed through the female line; clan lands continue to be passed through titled women and first daughters today. The islands were part of the Spanish East Indies before being sold to Germany in 1899 following the Spanish-American War, and continued to change hands throughout the 20th century. Japan was awarded control in the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles, and set about confiscating and redistributing tribal land, replacing the matrilineal system with a patrilineal one. After World War II, Palau became a U.S. trust territory; it gained independence in 1994, but still relies on the U.S. for government aid and defense. Palauans are among a select group of nations permitted to serve in the U.S. military without permanent U.S. residency. (See pictures from inside Guantanamo Bay's detention facilities.)

While relatively calm in recent years, Palau is no stranger to political unrest. After it switched from being administered by the U.S. to a republic in 1981, its first president, Haruo I. Remeliik, was assassinated in his driveway in 1985; the killers were never caught. Three years later, Palau's third president, Lazarus Salii, committed suicide after being accused of bribery; months earlier, his personal aide had been convicted of firing a gun into the home of the Speaker of the House of Delegates.

More recently, it's been external pressures Palau has been worried about. It joined a group of a dozen island nations that successfully petitioned the U.N. General Assembly for a June 3rd resolution declaring climate change a security issue. The goal is to persuade the Security Council to address the threat posed by rising sea levels to the nations' existences. Scientists predict that many of Palau's smaller islands may become uninhabitable as they sink into the sea.

Between its U.N. diplomacy and its willingness to accept the Uighur detainees, Palau is drawing more international attention in one year than most Pacific islands get in a decade. Still, most Americans probably know it for a completely different reason: Palau was one of the few locations to be featured twice on the reality show Survivor. As it prepares to receive 17 potential new castaways, the question of how long Palau itself might survive remains unanswered.

Read "How to Close Guantanamo: A Legal Minefield."

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