Camp X-Ray was the name of the holding pen at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where the USA imprisoned hundreds of people captured in the course of 'The War Against Terrorism' in Afghanistan. The camp was closed down unceremoniously on April 29, 2002, and the remaining prisoners were moved to the newer Camp Delta (also in Guantanamo Bay), but serious questions remain regarding the United States' treatment of the Camp X-Ray prisoners - questions which I fear have been successfully glossed over by the ruling American administration and most of the US media.

Many US citizens have expressed puzzlement regarding the widespread international outrage about the USA's treatment of the prisoners taken in Afghanistan and held in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. 'These people are dangerous terrorists!' they cry, 'and anyway, what's wrong with the way they've been treated?' I would ask these people to imagine how they'd feel if a couple of hundred of their own countrymen had been taken prisoner by a foreign power in circumstances not entirely clear, carried hooded and earmuffed and bound hands and feet to a foreign country not known to them, forcibly shaved, and kept in outside cells with no protection from the weather; and if, on top of this, the captors made it quite clear that they had no intention of respecting their basic Geneva Convention rights as prisoners of war - yet these people were not charged with any criminal offence either, simply locked up for an indefinite period without any specific reason being given.

Would the good citizens of the USA really be happy with this happening to their fellow Americans? Imagine that the Somalians came in, for instance, wiped out a few American 'terrorist camps', took prisoner a few hundred people they suspected of being terrorists, and flew them to a military camp in Turkey where they were held for weeks or months without being allowed to contact their family or friends. The Somalians state that they will be subject to a military tribunal, at some indeterminate point in the future; in the meantime they are to be interrogated at great length. Is that something that the USA's general public would stand for? It seems unlikely to me, but then, I am not an American.

So much for the basic argument-by-analogy for what's wrong with Camp X-Ray. I know that's not going to convince everyone, so let's look in a little more depth at the legal arguments.

The Law Society and the Bar Council's committee on human rights - between them representing 100,000 lawyers in England and Wales - have stated without qualification that the United States' treatment of the prisoners is illegal under international law. The US's redefinition of the prisoners as 'unlawful combatants' has no basis in law, and even if it is accepted that they are not really prisoners of war, but merely prisoners captured in the course of a war, they remain entitled to the same basic rights as any other human being; and it is generally agreed that these include freedom from arbitrary detention, and access to lawyers for those incarcerated.

So what is the legal status of the Camp X-Ray prisoners? Well, under the Geneva Convention as signed by almost all of its signatories, there would be no question at all; we would have to say that they are clearly prisoners of war, and as such they are under no obligation to provide any information to their captors beyond their name, rank, date of birth and serial number, and they must be released as soon as hostilities cease if they are not being charged with war crimes or other offences (from which, incidentally, the taking up of arms against a foreign invader is specifically excluded). They would also be entitled to contact their families, and to a standard of living no worse than the conditions of America's own army. Although members of the US military have been quoted as saying that they have been living in conditions no better than those of the prisoners, there is no evidence that they have really been housed in six-foot-by-eight-foot cages under the unstinting glare of twenty-four-hour arc-lights, with no protection from the elements.

However, the USA is not a signatory to the most up-to-date version of the Geneva Convention, and this is what leaves room for any doubt that the captives should be considered prisoners of war; the original Geneva Convention only explicitly applies to soldiers, medics, war correspondents and so on, and the United States has not seen fit to sign the 1977 amendment which essentially expanded the convention to consider all prisoners taken during a war as prisoners of war. This is not to say that the prisoners should not be considered POWs under the American version of the Geneva Convention*; only that there is room for doubt. In cases like this, it is up to an independent tribunal (and not, for instance, the defence secretary of the capturing country) to decide whether a particular group of captives qualifies for POW status.

So let us accept for the sake of the argument that these 'unlawful combatants' need not be afforded the basic rights of prisoners of war. What rights are they then entitled to? Let us turn to the Bill of Rights at the heart of the USA's constitution - after all, they are prisoners of the States, being held on land the US claims as its own, so there is a strong case for saying that they should be afforded the same rights as anyone else subject to US law. These include freedom from cruel and unusual punishments; the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury; the right to be informed of the nature and cause of any accusations against them; and the right of access to a lawyer.

Whether any of these rights have been afforded to the Guantanamo Bay prisoners is a matter of debate. Some people - chiefly those who are not familiar with the way the US routinely treats its own criminals while they are being transported - feel that the level of sensory deprivation the prisoners were subjected to in transit amounted to a cruel and unusual punishment; others feel the same about the cramped and exposed conditions they were kept in, and the allegations that for the first few days of their detention they were not offered more than one halal meal to eat each day. It would be hard to argue that those who remain imprisoned without charge are being offered a speedy trial; as for an impartial one, the US has successfully argued in the past that its own citizens should not be subjected to trials by military tribunals overseas, on the grounds that they could not be guaranteed to be impartial; it seems unwilling to apply the same logic here. It is not clear that the prisoners were ever informed of the nature and cause of any accusations against them, if indeed any such accusations were made. Certainly the prisoners were given no access to lawyers during the first months of their imprisonment.

It is also worth mentioning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which grants many of the same rights as the US Constitution with respect to freedom from arbitrary detention, the right to a fair trial, and so on; it also establishes that everyone is entitled to equal treatment before the law, an entitlement which is hard to reconcile with the decision to allow 'American Taleban' John Lindh access to legal representation while denying the same right to foreigners.

So there, in summary, you have the bulk of the legal and human rights arguments against the behaviour of the United States of America's administration with respect to the Camp X-Ray prisoners, and the main reasons why this behaviour has been greeted with so much anger and disgust by so many people internationally. I hope this helps clear things up a bit.


Updates:

A number of developments have taken place since I first wrote this which suggest that things are even worse than I had realised:-
  • It has emerged that several of the inmates are minors, aged between 13 and 16. Apparently without any intended irony, a senior Pentagon spokesman said that "despite their age, these are very, very dangerous people". Others were aged and infirm, with one reported to be as old as 100.
  • Prisoners eventually released from the camp have said that although they were "generally well-fed and given medical care," they were "housed in cramped cells and sometimes shackled, hit and humiliated." (http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&node=&contentId=A29276-2003Mar25¬Found=true)
  • Reports have emerged of marines flushing Qurans in toilets while their prisoners looked on, helpless.
  • At least thirty-two suicide attempts have been made by prisoners at the camp, so far without success.
  • Almost two hundred inmates took part in a hunger strike against their treatment. At least two were force-fed after they had been striking for about a month.
  • Conditions are reported to be just as bad in the parallel "Unlawful Combatant" camps in Afghanistan, although they have not received the same level of media attention.
  • More than a year on, many prisoners have apparently still had no access to lawyers or their families. None have yet been charged with any crimes, and only a couple of dozen have been released after their captors had to admit that they had no evidence of their being involved in terrorist activities - one of these seemingly having been taken in because, being deaf, he was unable to answer US soldier's questions. Interrogation of the remaining prisoners continues.

* Even the US's version includes 'members of the armed forces of a Party to the conflict as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces' as well as 'inhabitants of a non-occupied territory, who on the approach of the enemy spontaneously take up arms to resist the invading forces, without having had time to form themselves into regular armed units, provided they carry arms openly and respect the laws and customs of war'.


Some relevant web links:

  • The Red Cross, who very rarely go so far as to openly condemn anything, condemn the treatment of the prisoners - as do various former US army officials: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/afp_world/view/51677/1/.html
  • Amnesty International - "The Guant├ínamo scandal continues": http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGAMR510782003
  • BBC guide to conditions in Camp X-Ray: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/americas/2002/inside_camp_xray/default.stm
  • Legal challenge by mother of one of the British detainees: http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/uk/newsid_1844000/1844405.stm and http://www.guardian.co.uk/afghanistan/story/0,1284,658172,00.html - struck down on the grounds that the actions of the British government on the international stage are outside of the courts' jurisdiction: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/1874009.stm
  • Another legal challenge, from Australian, British and American lawyers: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/mar2002/hick-m11.shtml
  • Camp X-Ray compared and contrasted with Hezbollah's prison camps: http://www.zmag.org/Sustainers/content/2002-02/14glass.cfm
  • The Geneva Convention: http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/y3gctpw.htm
  • The newer clauses extending the definition of Prisoner of War: http://193.194.138.190/html/menu3/b/93.htm
  • Jaez's writeup which used to be here, too undiplomatic for this site: http://fergusmurray.members.beeb.net/campxray.htm

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