Swiss address impasse over Guantanamo Bay prisoners

Experts at a Swiss-organised meeting will discuss the legal status of Guantanamo Bay detainees. Keystone

One year after their arrival in Cuba, the legal status of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay remains undefined – a situation that has been widely condemned.

This content was published on January 22, 2003 - 17:43

Switzerland – the depository state of the Geneva Conventions – is hoping to resolve the question of the prisoners’ status at a meeting in Boston next week.

The United States refuses to classify the Guantanamo Bay detainees as prisoners of war; describing them instead as "illegal combatants".

Since this classification is not recognised by Geneva Conventions, which govern the treatment of POWs, this means the detainees have no legal protection and are deprived of contact with the courts, their lawyers and their families.

"They are confronted with the prospect of remaining indefinitely in detention and being judged by military commissions, which habitually hand out death sentences," Catherine Morand of Amnesty International told swissinfo.

To try to resolve the difficulty, Switzerland has called a meeting for January 27 to examine how the Conventions can be applied in the wake of September 11 and the US's "war against terror".

Adapting humanitarian law

"Some 70 participants in Boston will consider how to adapt international humanitarian law in the face of the evolution of current conflicts," says Barbara Fontana, scientific adviser to the Swiss Foreign Ministry, one of the meeting's organisers.

The Swiss have denied that the point of the meeting is to reform the Conventions. The foreign ministry insists that the discussions will focus only on how to apply them to deal with the threat of terrorism.

The three-day meeting is being hosted by the Harvard Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research. Funded by Switzerland, the gathering will include representatives from the United Nations and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The meeting amid renewed criticism that the US is continuing to send al-Qaeda suspects to Camp X-Ray - the prison at the American naval base in Guantanamo Bay - in secret.

Camp X-Ray

Amnesty International says it is investigating the case of two men arrested in Gambia last November, who appear to have been taken to Camp X-Ray.

"Suspected of being associated with al-Qaeda, they seem to have been transferred secretly to Guantanamo," says Morand.

"We are making enquiries about other recent cases. If our suspicions are confirmed, they will reveal that the prisoners of Guantanamo do not only stem from the war in Afghanistan," she adds.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only independent organisation to have access to Camp X-Ray, says it is cannot confirm or deny the information.

Legal status

To fill the legal vacuum, the ICRC is pushing for the US to determine the legal status of each prisoner on an individual basis.

This is a view shared by the NGO, Human Rights Watch. In its annual report, published on January 14, the organisation stated that terrorists breach the fundamental rights of the individual by attacking civilians.

However, it also said that the US negates these principles when it dismisses the abuse committed by their allies within the framework of the fight against terrorism, such as Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia or the Afghan warlords.

swissinfo, Frédéric Burnand (translated by Faryal Mirza)

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