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UN Human Rights Expert to Conduct First-Ever Visit to Guantánamo Bay Prison

Updated: Aug 31, 2023

"It's hard to exaggerate the importance of this visit more than two decades since Guantánamo was open to hold detainees beyond the reach of the law," said one ACLU official.

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For the first time ever, a United Nations human rights and counterterrorism expert will visit the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a U.N. office announced Wednesday. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said Irish attorney and law professor Fionnuala Ní Aoláin—the U.N. special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism—will visit Guantánamo as part of a "technical visit to the United States" from February 6-14.

In addition to visiting the prison, OHCHR said Ní Aoláin will "carry out a series of interviews with individuals in the United States and abroad, on a voluntary basis," including victims and relatives of those killed in the 9/11 attacks and former Guantánamo detainees in countries where they have been repatriated or resettled.

Human rights advocates welcomed the development. "We commend the Biden administration for agreeing to let a U.N. human rights expert visit Guantánamo, finally ending a shameful U.S. government moratorium that sought to establish a prison outside the reach of law," Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project, said in a statement. "International human rights norms and institutions are integral to preventing the torture, indefinite detention, and unfair trials that now symbolize Guantánamo globally," Shamsi added. "It should never have taken two decades, but we're encouraged to see the basic principle of U.N. rights officials' independent access to all sites of detention and detainees respected at long last by our country."

Since it was first opened in January 2002 by the George W. Bush administration in the early months of the so-called War on Terror, Guantánamo, or Gitmo in U.S. military parlance, has imprisoned 779 men and boys. Many of them were tortured, and only a handful were ever charged with any crime. According to retired U.S. Army Col. Lawrence Wilkerson—who served as chief of staff to Bush-era Secretary of State Colin Powell—Bush, along with Dick Cheney, his vice president, and Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, knew that most Gitmo prisoners were innocent, but kept them locked up for political reasons. Although then-Presdident Barack Obama—under whom President Joe Biden served as vice president—signed executive orders meant to close Guantánamo and end torture, he was blocked by Congress from implementing the former policy, while torture continued at Gitmo during his tenure.

"International human rights norms and institutions are integral to preventing the torture, indefinite detention, and unfair trials that now symbolize Guantánamo globally." Hundreds of Guantánamo detainees were released during the Bush and Obama administrations, with a relative handful freed under Biden. Today, 35 men remain locked up at Gitmo. According to the Pentagon, 20 of them are cleared for release while nine—including alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed—have ongoing cases before military commissions from which numerous prosecutors have resigned amid allegations of rigging to secure convictions. September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, an activist group, said in a statement that it "deeply appreciates the willingness of the special rapporteur's office and the Biden administration to work together to make her visit to Guantánamo possible." "As 9/11 family members, we remain gravely concerned about the absence of justice within the military commission system," the group added. "We welcome the commitment of the special rapporteur to the human rights of victims of terrorism and we hope that her work can inform a path forward to judicial finality for family members, the accused, and all those affected by 9/11 and its aftermath."

Biden—whose former press secretary said closing Guantánamo is "our goal and our intention"—has been criticized for failing to do so two years into his administration and 21 years after the prison opened. Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

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