October 10, 2003 | Op-ed

Guantánamo Bay and the ICRC

October 10, 2003

Key Facts

·          On October 9, 2003, Christophe Girod of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) criticized the US for the continued detention of al-Qaida and Taliban members in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

·          Mr Girod said: “One cannot keep these detainees in this pattern, this situation, indefinitely.” He further stated that: “The open-endedness of the situation and its impact on the mental health of the population has become a major problem.” He also indicated that he was unhappy that Guantánamo Bay is: “an investigation center, not a detention center.”

·          The US is holding 660 prisoners in Guantánamo Bay from 42 countries. The US considers the detainees to be “unlawful combatants”. Human rights groups have called for all of the detainees to be granted full POW status. Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on March 6, 2003 for Taliban prisoners to be released, claiming that the war with the Taliban is now over.

·          Retired US judges and military officers have filed an amicus curiae brief with the US Supreme Court. Their concern is that American captives in any future conflict will be treated poorly because of the precedent allegedly set by Guantánamo Bay.


The ICRC’s public criticism of the US represents outrageous bias.

It is extremely unusual for the ICRC to publicly criticize a government. The ICRC is not an advocacy group. It does not press its case publicly. Rather, the ICRC’s modus operandi is private engagement with governments and non-state actors to improve the conditions of detention of prisoners. The ICRC has been silent about the atrocious treatment of prisoners by governments, such as Saddam’s Iraq.


The conditions of detention at Guantánamo Bay are humane.

There is no evidence that the detainees are treated poorly. Released prisoners have often said that they were treated humanely, although one complained that the diet contained insufficient eggplant. Detainees from Kazakhstan have asked not to be repatriated. The mothers of the eight Russian detainees have asked the US not to repatriate their sons. One Russian detainee commented: “They give me books here and I am held in a clean place. The food is tasty. I want for nothing but freedom. Good people are sat around me.”

Granting POW status to the detainees will damage the integrity of the Geneva Convention.

The 1949 Geneva Convention deliberately extended the protections for regular troops to irregulars, defining them broadly. Despite having these safeguards available, al-Qaida and the Taliban flouted them, failing to fight “openly” or in accordance with the “laws and customs of war.” They also feigned surrender and failed to fully lay down their arms. The detainees do not fit the Geneva Convention’s definition of soldiers, militiamen or resistance fighters. The Geneva Convention is important because it protects lawful combatants and distinguishes between combatants and civilians. Al-Qaida and the Taliban deliberately blurred this distinction.


The US is entitled to interrogate the detainees.

The ICRC is wrong to suggest that there is an inconsistency between detention and interrogation. Even Human Rights Watch agrees that the US can interrogate the detainees.


US prisoners have more often than not been treated poorly, irrespective of Guantánamo Bay.

Long before Guantánamo Bay, US POWs were consistently mistreated by their captors (e.g. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Somalia). In none of these instances did US observance of the Geneva Convention encourage the detaining authority to behave humanely.


Policy implications

The US should move ahead with plans for military tribunals.

The US should work with the ICRC, despite its bias. The US should continually review the detainees’ status, with releases on a case-by-case basis. Some detainees should be brought before military tribunals. The US should discuss possible changes in tribunal procedures, as it has done with the British government.


National security and humane treatment are not inconsistent.

There is no inconsistency between upholding the values of the Geneva Convention and ensuring the safety of Americans in the war against terrorism. The US should continue to treat the detainees humanely and fairly. But the Geneva Convention is not a suicide pact.

Additional Information

Red Cross Criticizes Indefinite Detention in Guantánamo Bay, by Neil A. Lewis, The New York Times, October 10, 2003. ICRC, Guantánamo Bay: Overview of the ICRC’s work for the internees, August 25, 2003. Human Rights Watch, Guantanamo detainees, passim. FDD, The Geneva Convention is not a suicide pact, 2002.