The opacity of Camp X-Ray

The prisoners of the Fifth Afghan War at Guantanamo Bay represent yet another example of violation of international norms by the United States in its own interests.

Published : Feb 16, 2002 00:00 IST

At Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, U.S. soldiers take a prisoner to his cell.-GAMMA

At Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, U.S. soldiers take a prisoner to his cell.-GAMMA

ON January 29, President George W. Bush stood alongside Afghanistan's interim leader Hamid Karzai in front of the White House in Washington and told the press that "there's no evidence that we're treating (the Taliban and Al Qaeda prisoners in Cuba) outside the spirit of the Geneva Conventions, and for those who say we are, they just don't know what they're talking about. I'm looking at the legalities involved with the Geneva Conventions. However, I make my decision, these detainees will be well treated."

Karzai, who was in the United States to attend Bush's State of the Union address and the World Economic Forum in New York ("Davos on the Hudson") nodded his assent. The Afghans held in cages in the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he indicated, neither posed a legal anomaly nor did their conditions raise substantial issues about human rights violations. Before the National Press Club, Karzai noted sharply, "They are criminals. I don't see them as prisoners of war. They brutalised Afghanistan. They killed our people. They destroyed our land. There was no war there. It was plain killing fields. Very plain killing fields. And these people are the perpetrators of that atrocity." Given his record of being enthralled by the powerful (the Taliban when they were in power, the Central Intelligence Agency when his offer to work for the Taliban at the United Nations was rebuffed), it is hardly surprising that Karzai should endorse wholeheartedly the U.S. position against the interests of many of his own countrymen.

As the Fifth Afghan War winds to a close, the U.S. holds 482 prisoners both in its jails in Afghanistan and in the detention jail in the U.S.-held part of Cuba. These prisoners, it turns out, are not only Taliban regulars (thereby being Afghans), but they are also those "Afghan Arabs" and others who came to the region during the 1980s and afterwards, first to fight the left-of-centre regimes and then to take shelter under Taliban rule. Many of the latter hail from Saudi Arabia and Yemen (the two largest contributors), as also from Sweden, Britain, France and Australia. (The U.S. says that the prisoners come from 25 nations, but only these six countries have identified themselves.)

The U.S. has thus far only found one of its citizens among the arrested, John Walker Lind, who is being tried in a U.S. Federal Court under various charges that amount to treason and sedition. Two prison uprisings in Afghanistan and the massacre of several arrested combatants by Northern Alliance troops (with CIA agents nearby) have reduced the number of prisoners, but by all accounts those that are being sent to Cuba seem to be Al Qaeda and Taliban forces with information about networks that the U.S. wants to secure.

Within days of the arrival of the 158 prisoners in Cuba, several of the U.S.' main allies began to offer criticisms of the detention policy. The prisoners arrived at the eastern end of the controversial U.S. base in shackles and with hoods over their faces. The U.S. military transferred them into wire cages where they live exposed to the elements, with no protection against the snakes and rats that run rife over the undomesticated regions of Cuba. Winds, heat and rain will batter the exposed prisoners as they sit, with one Koran among them, to pray, to eat and to suffer the indignity of their capture. These are not conditions in which the U.S. troops live, a marker of their conditions as prisoners of war (PoWs) as reported by the 1949 Geneva Conventions to which the U.S. is a signatory. For this reason, the International Red Cross, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among other international human rights groups, immediately challenged the U.S. legal position. The governments of France and Britain also weighed in with their concerns: France over the treatment of all the "suspects", and Britain over the treatment of five Englishmen held at the camp.

The Cuban government, up to the challenge of this most recent provocation at Guantanamo, denounced the use of the base as a holding pen for the statusless persons as well as the conditions of the camps themselves. The U.S. could very well have taken these prisoners onto the mainland and settled them at any number of the penitentiaries set up during the prison boom of the last two decades, so it is significant that the government chose Cuba as the site for Camp X-Ray.

In late January, Saudi Arabian Interior Minister Prince Nayef weighed in with comprehensive criticism against the treatment of the hundred Saudis at the camp (the largest detachment). "I know about them," he said, "but we don't know the charges against them except that they were arrested in Afghanistan. The issue of prisoners is important to us and we ask that they be handed over to us so we can interrogate them, since they fall under the kingdom's regulations." In response, the Pentagon's spokesperson, Victoria Clarke, noted that the U.S. military would return those prisoners to "those countries that we feel will handle them appropriately. We have no desire to hold on to large numbers of detainees of any kind for any great length of time. But we want to make sure these people are not back out on the streets." The aim of the camp, by this declaration, is not to hold the prisoners until trial, but to retain them in a situation of life imprisonment forthwith.

The issue of names for the prisoners is central to the dispute over Camp X-Ray. The U.S. claims that these "detainees" are not PoWs, that their dangerous behaviour and tendencies lead them to be held in cages that deny them any privacy. The Pentagon, therefore, insists that the 158 people held in Cuba are "unlawful combatants", an illogical phrase that has no room in international law but which was used in 1942 by the U.S. Army to define arrested German saboteurs. In the Geneva Conventions there are only two kinds of people: combatants and civilians, where combatants are those in the armed forces "of a Party to the conflict as well as members of militias or volunteer corps forming part of such armed forces," or else "members of other militias and members of other volunteer corps, including those of organised resistance movements" where the marks of a militia are, among others, that they bear arms, that they have a "fixed distinctive sign recognisable at a distance" (Article 4.1 and Article 4.2. a, b and c). The Taliban forces and officials certainly fall under the first part of the definition and the Al Qaeda forces fit the latter description since they are a volunteer, but organised detachment that, by U.S. accounts, worked alongside the Taliban regulars.

National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice released a letter on January 28 in which she defended the government's stand, saying particularly that the Geneva Conventions do not apply here because the Taliban was an illegal government and that these prisoners did not fight in a standing army. The Conventions, however, do state that even if the government in the conflict is not recognised (as the U.S. claims of the Taliban), the status of PoW is accorded without qualification to "members of regular armed forces who profess allegiance to a government or an authority not recognised by the detaining power" (Article 4.A.3). In response to the statement by Rice, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth noted: "The U.S. government cannot choose to wage war in Afghanistan with guns, bombs and soldiers and then assert that the laws of war do not apply. To say that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to a war on terrorism is particularly dangerous, as it is all too easy to imagine this 'exception' coming back to haunt U.S. forces in future conflicts."

Why, then, is the U.S. government adamant on Camp X-Ray? Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld intimated that the conditions are not as bad as many think because Cuba is a tropical island and it is not horrendous to sleep outdoors. This cavalier attitude belies the U.S.' own use of the base as a settlement site for Haitian and Cuban refugees in 1994, when the refugees stayed in stark, inhospitable, but at the very least permanent hard-walled shelters. This time there are no walls, only fortified wire mesh. If the refugees stayed in enclosed shelters, if the U.S. troops stay in barracks, why should these prisoners sleep in the open?

Early on in the process, the Defence Department noted that these prisoners would be interrogated for information about Taliban-Al Qaeda links and the Al Qaeda networks around the world. Paul Wolfowitz, former U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia and now Deputy Secretary of Defence, warned that "going after Al Qaeda in Indonesia is not something that should wait until after Al Qaeda has been uprooted from Afghanistan." And indeed by late January, 650 U.S. "advisers" made their way to the Basilan Islands of the Philippines to take on the Abu Sayyaf group so that, in the words of U.S. Pacific forces commander Admiral Dennis C. Blair, "Asia is not the last bastion of Al Qaeda" and to "make it inhospitable for terrorists to come here". The forward strategy of the U.S. requires intelligence from those human beings who had been part of the Al Qaeda network and can perhaps provide the CIA with names and information on the networks.

The interrogations in Afghanistan proved difficult, and the most hardened and senior people in the Taliban and Al Qaeda are now in Cuba where they will be asked to "cooperate" with U.S. intelligence. What better strategy to "soften up" the prisoners than to expose them to the elements and to give them as little intellectual stimulation as possible. The U.S. military and intelligence forces will not, most probably, emulate the Israeli Defence Forces' techniques for the extraction of information - mainly involving highly developed torture. Short of that, the brutal conditions at Camp X-Ray may assist the U.S. intelligence officers to extract information on Al Qaeda networks in Indonesia, the Philippines and the rest of the oil lands, in order to enable the U.S.' ongoing operations in the area.

The U.S. signed the 1994 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, whose second article notes, "no exceptional circumstance whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture". This means that the terrible events of September 11, 2001, do not suffice as a reason for the U.S. to use extraordinary means to extract information on future attacks on its soil. If the prisoners in Cuba are designated as PoWs, then they are only obliged to offer their name, rank, serial number and date of birth, and nothing else. The Geneva Convention do not prevent the detaining power from interrogating prisoners and asking them all manner of questions, but the prisoners are not obliged to answer unless offered tangible rewards such as immunity from prosecution. Camp X-Ray sidesteps these conventions (as also the U.S. statutory law, Title 18, Section 242 of the U.S. Code, that prohibits the transportation of persons for torture) to allow the "torture of conditions" to "break" the prisoners' fortitude.

According to the human rights community, what is going on at Guantanamo Bay is nothing short of a violation of the Geneva Conventions, even as it could also be argued that the conditions amount to torture. To most of the world, Camp X-Ray is another example of the U.S. flagrantly violating international norms in its own interests, unconcerned about the niceties of law and precedent or the criticisms of even its own allies.

Vijay Prashad is Associate Professor and Director, International Studies Programme, Trinity College, Hartford. He recently published War Against the Planet: The Fifth Afghan War, U.S. Imperialism and Other Assorted Fundamentalisms (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2002).

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