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US detention related to the events of 11 September 2001 and its aftermath – the role of the ICRC

12-12-2005 Operational Update

This document explains the purpose of the ICRC visits to US places of detention in Bagram (Afghanistan), Guantanamo Bay (Cuba) and Charleston and its procedures.

 To find out more about the ICRC's detention work in Iraq see operational update of 30 September 2005  

The terrible events of 11 September 2001 shocked the world including the ICRC, which immediately condemned the attacks on the United States as an act negating the most basic principles of humanity.

The ICRC recognises the significant challenge the United States and other countries face in protecting their citizens against the threat of terrorism. Nevertheless, there are serious divergences of opinion about the relevant legal framework regarding some of the persons detained in the fight against terrorism. The ICRC is especially concerned about the fate of an unspecified number of detainees who are being held incommunicado at undisclosed locations seemingly outside any legal framework.

Many of those captured in the context of what is often referred to as the global war on terror are being held at US detention facilities in Bagram in Afghanistan and in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Two persons are furthermore detained in Charleston, USA. The ICRC has been regularly visiting these facilities. The ICRC has also repeatedly appealed to the US authorities for access to people detained in undisclosed locations.


ICRC in Afghanistan - October 2005 

Bagram   The ICRC has been visiting detainees at the US-run Bagram military airbase since January 2002. Most of them are Afghans captured by the US-led coalition in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan. As of October 2005, the ICRC was visiting approximately 500 detainees at Bagram.  


The ICRC ceased visiting the US detention facility in Kandahar in July 2005 after it was informed by the US authorities that Kandahar airbase would no longer contain a permanent place of detention and following the transfer of the detainees held at Kandahar to Bagram.   Since the beginning of 2005 until the end of October, nearly 3,200 Red Cross Messages have been exchanged between detainees held at Bagram and Kandahar and their families.


ICRC in Guantanamo Bay - October 2005 
  The ICRC has been visiting detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba since January 2002. There are currently about 500 detainees from roughly 40 countries. As of early December 2005, the ICRC has facilitated the exchange of nearly 20,800 Red Cross messages between the detainees and their families in more than 30 countries.

Applicable law 

People held in connection with armed conflicts such as in Afghanistan fall under the regime of international humanitarian law (IHL) and should be treated accordingly.

Those persons detained outside of a situation of armed conflict have rights enshrined in a number of other bodies of law, such as international human rights law and relevant provisions of domestic law.

Why the ICRC? 

The ICRC has been visiting people detained in connection with armed conflicts since 1915 when its delegates first negotiated access to tens of thousands of prisoners of war held during World War One. The ICRC's practice of visiting prisoners of war – combatants captured during an international armed conflict – was codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, to which 192 states are party. Common Article Three of the Four Geneva Conventions also gives the ICRC the right to request access to persons detained in non-international armed conflicts such as civil wars. Under the statutes of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, the ICRC can moreover request access to persons detained in connection with situations of violence that fall below the threshold of armed conflict. These statutes were approved in 1986 by the International Conference of the Red Cross in which States party to the Geneva Conventions including the United States participated. 

In 2004, the ICRC visited more than 2,400 detention places holding about 570,000 detainees in nearly 80 countries around the world. 29,000 detainees were registered and visited for the first time.

Aim of the visits 

The role of the ICRC, as an independent and neutral humanitarian organisation with a mandate conferred on it by states, is to regularly assess the conditions of detention, the treatment of detainees and respect of their fundamental judicial guarantees. The ICRC offers observations and makes recommendations for improvements - where appropriate - in the course of its ongoing confidential dialogue with the relevant authorities. Concerning Bagram, Guantanamo Bay and Charleston, the responsibility for ensuring that detainees are treated in accordance with international humanitarian law and other applicable bodies of law lies with the US authorities.

The ICRC's visits to Bagram and Guantanamo Bay are a continuation of the work the organisation had been carrying out in detention places in Afghanistan during the war in 2001.


ICRC detention visits are usually carried out by a team of specialised delegates as well as interpreters and medical personnel when appropriate. The organisation follows the same standard working procedures wherever it visits detainees. These include:

  • ICRC delegates must be able to speak in total privacy to each and every detainee held; delegates inspect all cells and other facilities.

  • Visits are carried out at a frequency of the ICRC's choice and for as lo ng as people are held in detention.

  • All detainees have the opportunity to write to their families using the Red Cross message system and to receive Red Cross messages from their next of kin.

  • Delegates conduct confidential discussions with the camp authorities before and after each visit to raise concerns and make recommendations where appropriate.

  • The ICRC individually registers the identities of detainees falling within its area of concern. This makes it possible to monitor the situation of each detainee throughout his or her period in detention.

Red Cross messages 

For most detainees and their families, Red Cross messages are an important means of maintaining regular contact and can thus help to alleviate feelings of isolation and uncertainty over their future. Red Cross messages are intended for the exchange of personal and family news and are censored by the US authorities. This corresponds to standard worldwide practice wherever the ICRC visits places of detention.

The Red Cross message service for detainees and their families is a major logistical exercise, involving a number of ICRC delegations worldwide, as well as national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in the detainees'home countries. Every message is delivered by hand to the detainees and their families. Given the constraints involved, message collection and distribution is a time consuming exercise.

Military Commissions for Guantanamo Bay detainees 

International Humanitarian Law provides for the prosecution of people suspected of having committed war crimes or any other criminal offence. It requires that the individuals concerned be afforded essential judicial guarantees. These include the presumption of innocence, the right to be tried by an impartial and independent tribunal, the right to qualified legal counsel and the exclusion of any evidence obtained as a result of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

US military commissions have begun hearing cases against a limited number of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. Commission proceedings were temporarily suspended pending legal challenges to the process in front of US courts. The ICRC has been closely following the development of the legal framework related to the military commissions and their actual proceedings. It has communicated its comments and observations on the military commissions to the US authorities on a number of occasions. 

Releases or transfers of detainees 

The ICRC interviews in private any detainee about to be transferred out of Guantanamo Bay to allow him the opportunity to raise any possible fears of persecution should he be sent home or to a third country. The ICRC then assesses and, as appropriate, relays the detainee's comments to the detaining authorities and makes recommendations as to how to proceed. This procedure aims to ensure respect for the internationally recognised prohibition of all forms of transfers of a person to an authority if there is a risk that the person will face ill-treatment.

The ICRC follows up on all cases of detainees transferred from Guantanamo Bay   to third countries, particularly if they are subsequently rearrested and deprived of their liberty. The ICRC aims to visit these detainees in their new place of detention to ensure that their treatment and the conditions of detention are in conformity with international legal requirements.

Whenever needed, ICRC delegates a re present when detainees are released and provide clothes and transport fares to enable the freed detainees to return to their families.

Dialogue with the US authorities 

The ICRC regularly discusses its findings concerning Bagram, Guantanamo Bay and Charleston with the military authorities in the camps as well as with the appropriate US government officials in Kabul and Washington. A number of the ICRC's observations regarding the conditions and treatment of detainees at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay have been addressed. 

While the ICRC has felt compelled to make some of its concerns public, notably regarding the legal status of the detainees, the primary channel for addressing issues related to detention remains its direct and confidential dialogue with the US authorities.

Confidentiality. Why? 

Wherever the ICRC visits places of detention, its findings and observations about the conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees are discussed directly and confidentially with the authorities in charge. Bagram, Guantanamo Bay and Charleston are no exceptions. The ICRC's lack of public comment on the conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees in the nearly 80 countries where it visits places of detention must therefore not be interpreted to mean that it has no concerns.

Confidentiality is an important working tool for the ICRC in order to preserve the exclusively humanitarian and neutral nature of its work. The purpose of this policy is to ensure that the ICRC obtains and, importantly, maintains, access to detainees around the world held in highly sensitive situations of armed conflict or other situations of violence. Working outside the spotl ight of media attention can make it easier for the ICRC and the detaining authorities to achieve concrete progress in detention places.

The ICRC is also concerned that any information it divulges about its findings in places of detention could easily be exploited for political gain. The ICRC furthermore regrets the fact that on a number of occasions over the past two years confidential information it transmitted to the US authorities was published by media. The ICRC never transmitted confidential information to the media or gave its consent for confidential information about detention issues to be made public. 

Legal issues 

For the ICRC, the question of the legal status of the persons detained by the US at Bagram and Guantanamo Bay, as well as the legal framework applicable to them remains unresolved .  

For many detainees at Guantanamo Bay nearly four years have passed since their arrest. The ICRC has always maintained that those detainees remaining at Guantanamo Bay should either be charged and tried, released, or be placed within a legal framework that governs their continued detention. In June 2004, the United States Supreme Court ruled that Guantanamo Bay detainees could file for writs of habeas corpus – that is, challenges to the legality of their detention – in US federal courts. The US Department of Defence has also put in place Combatant Status Review Tribunals and Administrative Review Boards to examine the cases of Guantanamo detainees. The ICRC continues to closely follow these developments. 

The ICRC believes that the uncertainty about their fate has added to the mental and emotional strain experienced by many detainees at Guantanamo Bay .  


The ICRC has had regular access to the persons detained at Bagram, but not immediately after their arrest. Initially detainees were only held for limited periods of time before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay or released. However, since mid-2003 many persons have been detained for longer periods at Bagram, in some cases for more than a year. Therefore, the ICRC remains concerned by the fact that the US authorities have not resolved the questions of their legal status and of the applicable legal framework.

Detention at undisclosed locations 

Beyond Bagram and Guantanamo Bay, the ICRC is concerned about the fate of an unknown number of people detained at undisclosed locations. For the ICRC, obtaining information on these detainees and access to them is a priority and a logical continuation of its current detention work in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Although no agreement has as yet been reached on the notification of these detainees to the ICRC and ICRC access to them dialogue continues with the US authorities on this issue.