Overview of the ICRC's work for internees in Guantanamo Bay.

In mid-August 2003 the ICRC began a new visit to internees held at the US-run detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The work has been continuing since the internees began arriving there in January 2002.

The following article explains why and how the ICRC carries out these visits and why it is concerned about the impact the seemingly open-ended detention is having on the internees:

    The ICRC visits around 660 people currently held at Guantanamo. The internees come from more than 40 countries, speaking around 17 languages.

    Each visit lasts around six weeks and comprises a team of ICRC delegates, highly experienced in detention work, as well as medical personnel and interpreters.

    By August 2003, the ICRC had facilitated the exchange of more than 5,800 Red Cross Messages between the internees and their families

Aim of the visits:

People held as a result of conflict or armed violence are protected by international humanitarian law, and should be treated humanely.

The US Government refused to grant any internee in Guantanamo the status of Prisoner of War. All the same it said it would treat them "...humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949." (White House Fact Sheet )

The US agreed to let ICRC teams visit Guantanamo as an extension of work the organization had already begun in detention facilities in Afghanistan during and after the conflict in 2001.

The role of the ICRC, as an independent, non-judgemental humanitarian organisation, is to regularly assess the facilities, speak with the internees, and to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the US authorities in order to offer observations and make recommendations where appropriate. While the ICRC monitors the conditions of internment at Guantanamo, the responsibility for ensuring that persons held there are indeed treated humanely lies with the US authorities.

Why the ICRC?

The ICRC has been visiting people detained in connection with armed conflicts since 1915 when its delegates negotiated access to tens of thousands of prisoners held during World War One. The practice of the ICRC visiting prisoners of war - combatants captured during an international armed conflict - is codified in the Third Geneva Convention, to which the USA and 190 other states are party. Common Article Three of the Four Geneva Conventions also gives the ICRC the right to request access to persons detained in non-international wars.

In 2002 the ICRC visited nearly 450,000 detainees, held in more than 75 countries around the world.

Legal concerns:

For the ICRC, the question of the legal status of the persons held at Guantanamo Bay and the legal framework applicable to them remains unresolved.

The ICRC's main concern today is that the US authorities have placed the internees in Guantanamo beyond the law. This means that, after more than eighteen months of captivity, the internees still have no idea about their fate, and no means of recourse through any legal mechanism.

Through its visits, the ICRC has been uniquely placed to witness the impact this uncertainty has had on the internees. It has observed a worrying deterioration in the psychological health of a large number of them. This has prompted the ICRC to ask the US authorities to institute a due legal process in accordance with the judicial guarantees stipulated by international humanitarian law. This process should formalize and clarify the fate of each and every individual in Guantanamo and put an end to the seemingly open-ended system of internment that currently exists. The ICRC has also asked the US authorities to implement significant changes at Guantanamo Bay.

The US has the right to legally prosecute any internee at Guantanamo Bay suspected of having committed war crimes or any other criminal offence punishable under US law.


The same standard working procedures have been put into place in Guantanamo that the ICRC demands in every place of detention it visits in the world. That is:

- ICRC delegates insist on speaking in total privacy to each and every internee held; teams should be able to inspect all cells and other facilities

- Visits should be made at a frequency of the ICRC's choice and for as long as the people are held in detention

- All detainees should have the opportunity to write to their families using the Red Cross message system

- Delegates conduct confidential discussions with the camp authorities before and at the end of each visit to raise concerns and make recommendations where appropriate

- Any internee about to be transferred out of Guantanamo is interviewed privately before his departure to ensure he agrees to be repatriated.


The ICRC has visited all the juveniles detained at Guantanamo. The US authorities have made efforts to provide special measures for some of the juveniles, including housing them separately from the adult population and providing specialist counselling. Nonetheless, the ICRC does not consider Guantanamo an appropriate place to detain juveniles. It is especially concerned about the fact that they are held away from their families and worries about the possible psychological impact this experience could have at such an important stage in their development.

Relationship with the US authorities:

At the beginning and end of each visit to Guantanamo, the ICRC discusses its findings with the military authorities in the camp as well as with the appropriate authorities in Washington. A number of recommendations have been partly implemented, but the ICRC feels that significant changes need to be made.

The ICRC's dialogue with the US on the conditions of internment and the treatment of internees remains frank and open. Nonetheless, serious divergences of opinion persist on a number of crucial issues.


Wherever the ICRC visits places of detention, its findings and observations about the conditions and treatment for detainees are discussed confidentially with the authorities in charge. Guantanamo Bay is no exception.

Confidentiality is an important working tool for the ICRC in order to preserve the exclusively humanitarian nature of its work. The ICRC is concerned that any information it divulges about its findings could easily be exploited for political gain. Moreover, the policy of confidentiality ensures that the ICRC obtains and, importantly, maintains, access to tens of thousands of detainees around the world.

Red Cross messages:

For many of the internees in Guantanamo, Red Cross messages are the only contact they have with their families in the outside world. As the feeling of isolation and despair has increased, these messages have become increasingly valuable for the internees and their families.

Red Cross messages contain only family news and are checked by the US authorities to ensure that this is the case. This corresponds to standard worldwide practice wherever the ICRC visits places of detention.

The Red Cross message operation in Guantanamo is a major logistical exercise, involving a number of ICRC delegations, as well as national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world. Every message is hand-delivered to the intended addressee.

Military Commissions:

The US had publicly announced its plans to set up military commissions to try at least some of the internees at Guantanamo.

International humanitarian law stipulates that any proceedings against detainees should respect fundamental judicial guarantees, such as the presumption of innocence, the right to be tried by an impartial and independent tribunal, the right to competent legal counsel and the exclusion of any evidence obtained as a result of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The ICRC is following the evolution of the military commissions closely and has opened a dialogue with the US authorities to discuss the issue in more depth and raise any concerns it may have.

Source: International Committee of the Red Cross, Operational update, 25Aug03

State of Exception and Human Rights

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This document has been published on 11Oct03 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights