LONDON (Reuters) - The United States has a long way to go to ensure the Geneva Conventions are respected at the Guantanamo Bay prison for terrorism suspects, despite reforms by the Obama administration, a human rights lawyer said.
Clive Stafford Smith said in a Reuters interview that full respect of the conventions, which set standards at the core of international humanitarian law, would also mean an end to a secret U.S. system of detention and transfers of suspects developed by Washington after the 2001 attacks on U.S. cities.
“I hope there will be some more respect for the conventions but I think we have a long way to go,” Stafford Smith, director of legal charity Reprieve, said ahead of Wednesday’s 60th anniversary of the 1949 adoption of the fourth Geneva Convention to protect civilians in armed conflict.
The four conventions and additional protocols protect people not taking part in hostilities such as civilians, health workers and aid workers, and those no longer participating in fighting like wounded, sick and shipwrecked troops and prisoners of war.
Guantanamo is viewed by many as a stain on the United States’ human rights record. Some prisoners there have been detained for years without charge, some subjected to interrogation that human rights groups say amounted to torture.
Stafford Smith, whose charity represents 33 Guantanamo suspects, said the “first and biggest problem” in applying the conventions to Guantanamo was that they were not enforceable in American courts.
“The U.S. is a signatory to the conventions but there is nothing in U.S. domestic law which says you can enforce these provision in domestic courts.”
“If we don’t have an enforceability mechanism for the Geneva Conventions in American courts, then they don’t mean anything.”
SECRET PRISONS “ILLEGITIMATE”
President Barack Obama wants to shut the prison, at a U.S. naval base in Cuba, and has ordered a stop to harsh interrogation methods and the elimination of CIA detention centres.
The U.S. Justice Department has said that the legal structure for holding Guantanamo prisoners will now be based on laws passed by Congress and, by extension, international law, including the Geneva conventions.
But Stafford Smith says the moves do not go far enough in dealing with hundreds of suspected Islamist militants held, most for years without trial, at the base.
He said the conventions were still flouted at Guantanamo, to the extent that they constituted “a checklist of all the things that are done wrong in Guantanamo Bay.” The U.S. military says Guantanamo inmates receive respectful, humane treatment.
Full U.S. respect of the conventions would mean an end to a network of secret prisons around the world where rights groups say hundreds of terrorism suspects are still held at the behest of U.S. authorities, Stafford Smith said.
“Clearly by definition (such prisons) have to be open under the Geneva Conventions. You have to have Red Cross access, you have to have packages from your family, you have to be able to write to your family, so by definition secret prisons are illegitimate.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross president, Jakob Kellenberger, told Reuters last week that over the years the ICRC had achieved some improvements in detention conditions at the base but that many problems remained.
Editing by Robin Pomeroy