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RIGHTS: Guantanamo Issue Took Two Years to Reach UN Commission

Gustavo Capdevila*

GENEVA, Apr 15 2004 (IPS) - The situation of some 660 prisoners living in legal limbo at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo was brought up by Havana Thursday before the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, shortly after a resolution condemning Cuba’s human rights record narrowly passed.

The situation of some 660 prisoners living in legal limbo at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo was brought up by Havana Thursday before the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, shortly after a resolution condemning Cuba’s human rights record narrowly passed.

The Cuban delegation urged the Commission, the highest U.N. authority on human rights, to investigate the conditions in which the non-U.S. citizens of around 40 different nationalities are being held.

Most of the men, who the United States describes as Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects, have been held at Guantanamo Bay in southeastern Cuba since January 2002.

The Cuban petition on what it described as the ”concentration camp” at Guantanamo was made public a few minutes after the Commission approved, by a vote of 22 to 21, with 10 abstentions, the declaration criticising the human rights situation in Cuba, which was presented by Honduras.

Few governments have expressed concern over the conditions under which the detainees are being held in Guantanamo, which rights watchdog Amnesty International described this week as ”a major human rights scandal that has widespread implications for the whole world.”


Javier Zúñiga, senior director at Amnesty, said ”This policy promotes a world in which arbitrary and unchallengeable detentions become acceptable.”

The Chilean delegation was the only one of the 53 that make up the Commission to mention its concern over the situation in Guantanamo during the debate on the resolution against Cuba.

Chilean representative Juan Martabit said the detainees were being held at the navy base without knowledge of their legal status, with no formal charges having been filed against them, and with no right to a legal defence.

He also pointed out that the foreign ministers of Organisation of American States (OAS) member countries had stated that the war on terrorism must be carried out with full respect for the law, human rights, and the institutions of democracy,

But Richard S. Williamson, the head of the U.S. delegation to the Commission, said the same ”law of armed conflict (that) governs the war between the United States and (the) Al Qaeda” radical Islamist terrorist network applies in the case of Guantanamo.

Williamson said ”The war was clearly declared on September 11, 2001 when close to 3,000 innocent people were the victims of an evil, malicious and intentional attack by a fanatical group with twisted political goals.”

At the start of the Commission’s annual session, Williamson argued that ”the armed conflict falls under the rules for detention of enemy combatants”, who the United States has the authority to detain, ”under the law of armed conflict…for the duration of hostilities.”

This ”is not a human rights issue,” he insisted.

But Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), lamented after meeting with senior officials in Washington three months ago that ”two years after the first prisoners arrived, they still face indefinite detention beyond the reach of the law.”

The ICRC, which oversees the Third Geneva Convention guaranteeing minimum standards of treatment for prisoners of war, said last January that it had not yet seen ”concrete results” on concerns it expressed about the conditions in which the detainees are held in Guantanamo, and the treatment they receive.

In January 2002, then U.N. high commissioner for human rights Mary Robinson told Washington that the treatment of the detainees must be in line with the Third Geneva Convention.

Washington has denied the detainees prisoner of war status, and reserves the right to try them in special military courts. Only a handful have been repatriated so far.

The resolution presented by Cuba urges the Commission to demand that the United States provide ”the information necessary to clarify the conditions and legal status” of the detainees, and to put an end to the denounced ”violations.”

The proposal also calls for the special rapporteurs on torture and the independence of judges and lawyers, and the working group on arbitrary detention to report on the situation of the prisoners in Guantanamo.

Despite the frequent clashes between Havana and the United States, Cuba had not raised the subject of Guantanamo at the United Nations until recently.

The U.S. enclave in Guantanamo Bay dates back to a treaty signed by the two countries in 1903, and to a 1934 agreement that leased the area to the United States ”in perpetuity”.

Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque said in Havana that his government would invite Honduras, which presented the resolution condemning Cuba’s human rights record, to co-sponsor the Guantanamo petition.

It also said it would ask the 22 countries that voted in favour of the declaration against Cuba to back the proposal on Guantanamo.

The statement criticising Cuba was approved by the United States and the European members of the Commission: Armenia, Austria, Croatia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Australia, Japan, South Korea and seven Latin American countries – Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Peru – also voted in favour.

It was opposed by Bahrein, Burkina Faso, China, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, Togo, Ukraine and Zimbabwe.

Argentina, Brazil, Bhutan, Eritrea, Gabon, Mauritania, Nepal, Paraguay, Sri Lanka and Uganda abstained.

Pérez Roque said the resolution against Havana demonstrated ”double standards and subordination to the interests of the U.S. government by the countries that lent their support to this scheme against Cuba.”

But unlike similar declarations approved by the Commission in the past, this year’s does not explicitly condemn the government of Fidel Castro.

It deplores the lengthy prison sentences handed down to 75 dissidents last year, and calls on Cuba to ensure freedom of expression and religion and to start a dialogue with Cuban political groups and dissidents, to develop democratic institutions and guarantee respect for civil liberties.

Pérez Roque pointed out that ”not a single African, Arab or developing nation in Asia” voted in favour of the motion against Cuba, which he said was drafted by the U.S. State Department.

On the contrary, he said, the resolution was backed by ”developed and rich countries and minor allies of the United States” and by a group of Latin American governments ”that are incapable of acting independently” of Washington.

In Havana’s view, the ”merit” of the abstentions is even greater in the case of a group of African nations that it said were the targets of pressure and blackmail from Washington, including threats to withdraw economic aid and credit.

Unlike previous years, however, the foreign minister did not directly lash out against Latin American presidents and governments that voted in favour of the resolution against Havana.

Elizardo Sánchez, a leading Cuban dissident and head of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, noted that ”the great majority of the countries that supported the resolution have voted against Washington’s (40-year-old) embargo against Cuba” in the U.N. General Assembly.

The results of the vote are ”positive,” he told IPS, ”if we take into account the appalling situation of civil, political and economic rights that continues to prevail in Cuba.”

Cuban ambassador Iván Mora Godoy, meanwhile, said he was confident that the proposed resolution on Guantanamo would be discussed by the Commission next week, before the annual sessions end on Apr. 23.

(*Dalia Acosta in Havana contributed to this report.)

 
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RIGHTS: Guantanamo Issue Took Two Years to Reach UN Commission

Gustavo Capdevila*

GENEVA, Apr 15 2004 (IPS) - The situation of some 660 prisoners living in legal limbo at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo was brought up by Havana Thursday before the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva, shortly after a resolution condemning Cuba’s human rights record narrowly passed.
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