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Guantanamo Bay: the work continues

18-07-2003 Operational Update

Since they began arriving there early in 2002, the ICRC has been regularly visiting internees held by the United States at its Guantanamo Bay base. Although the ICRC visits prisoners and detainees worldwide, the Guantanamo operation has attracted special interest.


Activities in brief (as of 18.07.03):   The ICRC currently visits about 680 internees of 40 nationalities in Guantanamo Bay. The most recent visit ended in June 2003.

  The ICRC teams carrying out the visits are composed of experienced delegates familiar with the detainees' home countries as well as medical specialists. They are assisted by interpreters.

  By June 2003 the ICRC had processed the exchange of more than 5,800 Red Cross Messages between the internees and their families.  

 Aim of the Visits: The objective of the visits to Guantanamo Bay, as everywhere else, is strictly humanitarian - to ensure that the human dignity of the internees is respected and that they are treated humanely. ICRC delegates monitor basic issues such as food, hygiene facilities, the internees'access to open air and exercise possibilities. The aim is to ensure that the treatment of internees corresponds to internationally recognised legal standards, in particular the Geneva Conventions of 1949. As a neutral humanitarian organisation the ICRC does not seek to determine an internee's guilt or innocence.    

 Why the ICRC?: The ICRC has been visiting people detained in connection with armed conflicts since 1915 when its delegates negotiated access to prisoners of war held during World War One. The practice of the ICRC visiting Prisoners of War - combatants captured during an international armed conflict - is codified in the Third Geneva Convention, to which the USA and 189 other states are party. Common Article Three of the Four Geneva Conventions also gives the ICRC the right to request access to persons detained in civil wars.


 Prisoners of War - Yes or No? There has been much public debate about whether the internees in Guantanamo Bay are prisoners of war or not. The ICRC thinks that the legal status of each internee needs to be clarified on an individual basis and has repeatedly urged the US to do this. In any case, the US has the right to legally prosecute any internee at Guantanamo Bay suspected of having committed war crimes or any other criminal offence punishable under US law prior to or during the hostilities. 

 Procedures: In Guantanamo Bay and everywhere else the ICRC visits persons deprived of their liberty, it observes the same procedures. Most importantly, ICRC staff have to be able to speak to the internees in private, without supervision by the authorities, in order to get a complete picture of the conditions of detention. Delegates have to be allowed to register the internees. The ICRC also has to be free to inspect all cells and other facilities used by inmates at a detention site. It must be allowed to repeat visits to internees to be able to monitor the humanitarian situation over a period of time.

 Relationship with the US authorities:  At the beginning and the end of every visit to Guantanamo Bay, the ICRC discusses its findings with the military authorities in charge of the internees. The ICRC endeavours to propose concrete solutions to any problems observed by its delegates. The ICRC also regularly discusses its concerns with the appropriate military and civilian authorities in Washington.


 Confidentiality: The ICRC does not comment publicly on the situation in Guantanamo Bay. As a general rule, the ICRC discusses all matters concerning its visits to places of detention exclusively with the authorities concerned. This stops sensitive information from being exploited for political gain and ensures the ICRC's continued access to detainees. In many cases, visits by ICRC delegates are the detainees'only contact with the outside world; public statements could quickly result in authorities stopping the visits, which would be against the detainees'interests. The confidentiality rule derives from the general practice of the ICRC, and has made it possible for the organization to visit millions of detainees around the world for close on a century.

 Red Cross Messages: These messages allow the internees at Guantanamo Bay to stay in touch with their families. They contain only personal news and are checked by the US authorities before they enter or leave Guantanamo Bay. The messages provide the internees with an essential lifeline to the outside world. Each Red Cross Message written in Guantanamo Bay is hand-delivered   by the ICRC, working with national Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies who also collect the replies written by the internees'families .