GENEVA (Reuters) - The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has won improvements in conditions and treatment of U.S.-held terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay by dogged but confidential scrutiny, its president said Tuesday.
Jakob Kellenberger, speaking on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the Geneva Conventions, also welcomed the Obama administration’s stated support for the pact’s laying down of rules for treatment of prisoners and civilians in armed conflict.
The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, which opened after the deadly September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, became a symbol of detainee abuse and detention without charge under the previous administration of George W. Bush.
“If you take the case of Guantanamo, the day that you have access to ICRC archives, you will see that the ICRC’s work to improve conditions of detention and treatment has been enormous,” Kellenberger told a news conference.
“We have been very tenacious and it wasn’t easy,” he added.
In keeping with ICRC’s traditional neutrality, he declined to be more specific about the reports it has sent to U.S. authorities after prison visits — which are confidential.
Since January 2002, ICRC officials have visited captured al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters held at the U.S. naval base in southeastern Cuba at the rate of once every six weeks or so.
U.S. President Barack Obama has vowed to close Guantanamo Bay, which currently holds some 225 detainees, and has also ordered a stop to harsh interrogation methods.
The Geneva-based humanitarian agency normally opens its archives after 40 years, but may withhold personal details such as detainees’ names, ICRC spokesman Florian Westphal said.
The ICRC, in a leaked memorandum in the New York Times in November 2004, accused the U.S. military of using tactics “tantamount to torture” on prisoners at Guantanamo. The Pentagon rejected the allegations of psychological and physical abuse and the ICRC declined to confirm or deny their authenticity.
Kellenberger, a former senior Swiss diplomat at the ICRC helm for nearly a decade, said Tuesday that the Geneva Conventions had been under fire during the Bush administration.
Some U.S. officials at the time had questioned their relevance during the so-called “war on terror,” but failed to make any counter-proposal, he said. The ICRC’s legal position was that the treaties were “applicable in their entirety.”
“In fact, as we go out of this debate, as it stands now, I think that the relevance of the Conventions is not challenged,” Kellenberger said. “That was a difficult phase.”
In contrast, Obama administration officials have voiced support for upholding the treaties, a cornerstone of international humanitarian law, he said.
“That is a very important development,” Kellenberger said.
Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Michael Roddy