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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 17:12 GMT
ICRC: A tough mandate
US guard patrols the detention centre at Guantanamo Bay
The Red Cross will register every prisoner
By BBC News Online's Mark Snelling

The Red Cross officials visiting suspected Taleban and al-Qaeda prisoners at the US military camp in Cuba face a delicate task.

For us the priority is to have access

ICRC spokesman Darcy Christen
Despite the international controversy surrounding the conditions under which the prisoners are being held, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is quite simply not allowed to discuss its findings.

Delegates trained at headquarters in Geneva are drilled in confidentiality from day one - it is almost a mantra: "Talk about what you do, not what you see".

There has been widespread speculation about mistreatment of the prisoners. Some were sedated during transit from Afghanistan. Others are believed to have had their beards shaved off against their will.

But any expectations that the Red Cross visit to the Guantanamo Bay will yield a detailed and critical account of the conditions there will be disappointed.

Access and confidentiality

The reasons for confidentiality are tried and tested.

Delegates visit thousands of prisoners around the world every year, often in countries where any outside scrutiny is rare and unwelcome.

ICRC logo
The ICRC is bound to confidentiality
But it is because the ICRC promises this confidentiality that it is allowed access to places that no other organisation can reach.

In Guantanamo Bay's Camp X-ray, this understanding still applies.

"For us the priority is to have access," ICRC spokesman Darcy Christen told BBC News Online.

If the delegates witness mistreatment, they will hold what Mr Christen described as "comprehensive dialogue" with the detaining authority, and make recommendations.

Not everyone agrees with this approach, believing it to be morally flawed and ineffective.

The humanitarian organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres was formed by disaffected Red Cross delegates, who felt duty bound to speak out about what they saw.

But the ICRC sticks to its guns in the belief that the prisoners it visits would be seen by nobody at all - apart from their jailers - were it not for this policy.

Applying the conventions

One difference of opinion that certainly will not be discussed in public has been well publicised.

The Red Cross, which is mandated to monitor abuses of International Humanitarian Law - which includes the Geneva Conventions - believes the Guantanamo Bay inmates are prisoners of war.

US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
Rumsfeld says the detainees are not prisoners of war
This classification gives them the right to various protections under the Geneva Conventions, mainly the third convention on the treatment of prisoners of war.

According to the Red Cross, articles covering both international and non-international armed conflicts apply.

The ICRC argues that the western coalition fighting alongside the Northern Alliance made the campaign against the Taleban both an international, cross-border conflict and a civil war.

The United States, however, has made it clear it is treating them as "illegal combatants".

The Third Geneva Convention, however, states that the status of detainees can only be determined by "competent tribunal", meaning an independent, impartial and legally constituted court.

Mr Christen said the Red Cross had "no problem" with a military tribunal.

"That's something that we can live with," he said, as long as it was conducted according to internationally recognised judicial standards, such as the right to legal representation and the right to appeal.

But if any of the prisoners are not charged, he added, they have the right under the Geneva Conventions to be repatriated once hostilities have ended.

Clear mandate

Whatever the potential controversies, the delegates' job once inside the camp is clearly understood.

We have to balance security concerns which are legitimate, as long as they don't go against human dignity

Darcy Christen
The first priority is to register every prisoner, who is allotted an ICRC identity card and a number, which is then stored in the ICRC database in Geneva.

This may look like functional bureaucracy, but it is considered vital to keep close track on all detainees to minimise the chance of random disappearances.

For many prisoners around the world, it is a matter of life and death simply that someone else knows that they exist.

The US has already agreed that prisoners will be allowed to send and receive messages to relatives through the Red Cross Message network. So message papers will be distributed.

The delegates are also entitled to talk individually and confidentially with prisoners, without guards present.

Cuba map
The four-man Red Cross team includes a doctor, and speakers of the languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Arabic.

They are also mandated to tour the entire camp to check that facilities are adequate and appropriate - that there is enough space for each prisoner, that they can exercise and that sanitary facilities are up to scratch.

"We have to balance security concerns which are legitimate, as long as thy don't go against human dignity," said Mr Christen.

Whatever the ICRC recommendations about the controversial open cages erected on the base to house the prisoners, they will be discussed only with the camp commander.

The issue of shaven beards will also be checked to ensure that what US officials say are concerns about hygiene do not overwhelm the right of the prisoners to practise their religion.

Once the visit is complete, a report is submitted to the detaining authority and to ICRC headquarters in Geneva.

If recommendations are blatantly ignored, the report is sent higher up the US military chain of command.

Mark Snelling is a former ICRC delegate

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