Leading article: An affront to international justice and human rights

Editorial

The Independent

Published: 14 February 2006

There will be diplomatic fireworks when the United Nations Human Rights Commission releases its report on the US detention centre for terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay this week. The report is expected to call for the immediate closure of the notorious prison on the island of Cuba. As for the 520 detainees, the UN agency is likely to conclude that Washington should either put them on trial or release them. It is also expected to recommend that all allegations of torture must be investigated by US courts and that "all perpetrators up to the highest level of military and political command should be brought to justice". This could, in theory, include President Bush himself.

Such a conclusion would be bound to provoke a fresh row between the UN and the Bush administration. Washington might renew its threats to the UN's funding. But on this subject, the UN is indisputably in the right. Washington is said to be furious at the way this investigation has been conducted, pointing out that an invitation to the report's authors to visit Camp Delta in Cuba at the end of last year was rejected. Yet the UN was right to decline, since it was made clear the team would not be permitted to interview detainees - a condition that would have made the whole exercise pointless.

No amount of self-righteous fury from Washington can disguise the fact that the very existence of Camp Delta flies in the face of every principle of international justice and human rights. Many of these prisoners - gathered from around the Muslim world - have been detained without trial for four years. Against all but a handful, not a shred of evidence has been presented. Their access to lawyers has been grossly restricted. The US has tried to justify all this by arguing that these detainees are "enemy combatants" rather than normal soldiers and have fewer rights since they are not being held on sovereign US territory. But this has been rejected by even the US courts which insist the detainees have a right to challenge their detention. The response of the US military has been to carry on regardless.

Over the past four years, the allegations of physical mistreatment have mounted. In light of what we know about the US military's use of techniques such as "waterboarding", as well as the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, are the allegations by former detainees of Camp Delta that they were tortured so implausible? Last week, The New York Times revealed that detainees have been strapped down and force-fed after a mass hunger strike began last summer. It is, of course, impossible to substantiate these claims since the US government does not allow detainees access to international medical experts.

Recent reports about secret CIA prisons and the growing controversy over "extraordinary rendition" rightly concern us. But we must be careful not to lose sight of Guantanamo, a grotesque abuse of human rights that has been well known for some time. US government documents regarding the Camp Delta prisoners seen by two lawyers, Mark and Joshua Denbeaux, estimate that around half of the detainees "are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the US or it coalition allies". Only 8 per cent are classed in these documents as al-Qa'ida fighters.

Our own government's efforts in confronting this abuse of power by the Bush administration have been grossly deficient. Ministers have been pathetically weak in their pronouncements and - shamefully - have failed to take up the case of nine UK residents held there. This cannot go on. The US must understand Guantanamo is an affront to international law. The longer it holds these men in this inhuman legal limbo, the graver will be the damage to its already tarnished reputation as an upholder of international justice.