Three years after United Nations human rights inspectors first asked to tour the United Statesâ€™ GuantÃ¡namo Bay detention facility in Cuba, the Department of Defense appeared to give in Friday, extending an invitation to three of the international bodyâ€™s monitors. The tour will be heavily restricted and the officials will not be allowed to speak with any prisoners.
If the UN accepts the offer, the human rights monitors would tour the facilities and have access to US military officials, according to the Defense Department announcement. Lieutenant Colonel Mark Ballesteros told Voice of America that the inspectors will have the same limited access that US lawmakers and reporters have had, meaning that they will be under guide and not allowed to speak with the detainees.
"They'll meet with the commander of the joint task force," Ballesteros told VOA, the US-governmentâ€™s international news outlet. "They'll receive a briefing on operations by the senior commands and staff, medical staff and interrogation staff. They'll visit the camps and cells housing the detainees. They'll observe operations including recreation, religious, cultural, medical and nutritional practices."
Criticism of the Bush administrationâ€™s treatment of detainees has intensified in recent months, with human rights groups, peace organizations, former military officials and members of both dominant political parties calling for a range of remedies in the face of growing evidence that abuse is rampant in the international network of prisons run by the US military.
With President Bush threatening to use his veto for the first time since assuming power, the US Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill specifically prohibiting torture at the beginning of October. The bill, backed by former military leaders and human rights organizations, would require the US to follow US law and the Geneva Conventions in handling prisoners detaineed in the "war on terror."
Vice President Dick Cheney asked the measureâ€™s sponsor, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), himself a former prisoner of war, to include an exemption for the Central Intelligence Agency, a move that Human Rights Watch said renders "President Bushâ€™s past pledges about humane treatment meaningless." McCain reportedly denied the request.
Two weeks ago, Human Rights First released data showing that over 100 detainees have died while in US military custody since 2002, with 27 of those cases officially recognized by the Army as murders. An analysis by the group found several severe flaws in military investigations into the deaths, leading to suspicion that the situation is even worse than the numbers indicate.
The Pentagon announced the offer to the UN in a statement Friday, noting that "although department policy does not provide for such visits to detention facilities, the Department [of Defense] has determined on an exceptional basis to extend this invitation."