The decision by then Premier Ewart Brown to provide refuge to four Guantánamo detainees in Bermuda in June 2009 continues to vex residents some two years after the fact. We now know that the American and British governments are involved in discussions to provide a long term solution to the limbo-like status of the Uighurs; but whatever the outcome of these discussions, the situation brings into relief two aspects of our current political status: (1) Bermuda’s interests do not necessarily run parallel to the UK’s interests and (2) the rapid meshing of domestic policy with foreign policy will likely see more contested terrain on issues between Bermuda and Britain in the months and years ahead.
There is no doubt the decision to assist the United States with the detainee base closure was an act of friendship. The US is our most important trading partner, largest source of tourists, the country where most of our students get tertiary education and residents love the US Customs pre-clearance facility at the airport. The decision almost certainly strengthened our relationship with the US and has put us in a stronger position with the world’s most powerful country. The value of this is incalculable.
This matters not to the United Kingdom government since their ties are not as encompassing, looking as they do both across the pond and across the channel. Dr Brown positioned Bermuda better with the United States and I suspect history will render this judgment. For those conspiracy theorists seemingly beset with an unrelenting agitation and who believe there was some personal benefit for Dr Brown, they necessarily have to argue that President Obama, or at least US Attorney General Eric Holder, bestowed this benefit. They have to know this is ludicrous and this is why they have been silent on this aspect of their allegations.
The detainee decision involved aspects of both domestic and foreign policy, the former the responsibility of Bermuda and the latter falling under the UK’s remit. Under these circumstances whose authority should prevail? It is interesting to note that as early as 2003 the British government recognized this growing challenge posed by this coming together of foreign and domestic issues. Lord Triesman made the following observation when speaking about the UK relationship with the Overseas Territories: “We are moving into a world which is becoming ever-more interconnected, in which the distinction between domestic and foreign policy will become less and less clear.”
The UK government has gone even further by granting further responsibilities to its governors in the OTs. These responsibilities clearly fall outside of the powers granted to the UK under our constitution but it is defended on the grounds that that “the UK bears ultimate responsibility for the territories.”
Under these circumstances it simply cannot be that the mere assertion by the UK government that they have sole authority on an issue makes it valid. More importantly, the door is now open for the Bermuda government to argue for greater responsibility in the international arena because key areas of domestic policy—finance, environment, telecommunications—are being determined at the global level.
Bermuda does not have the luxury of being able to first sort out the “big” issues such as crime, education, health care and the environment and then move on “less pressing” issues in the international arena. The changes at the global level will continue and they will continue to affect us whether we are sitting around the table or not. Securing a seat, however, allows us to shape both the discussions and decisions.