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April 23, 2004

Cuba Backs Down Over Guantánamo Challenge to US


by Gustavo Capdevila

The situation of the detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo has been taboo for the United Nations human rights system, but particularly since Cuba decided Thursday not to pursue its moderately worded resolution against the United States.

Cuba's ambassador Iván Mora Godoy told the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that his country was withdrawing a motion to require the United States to report on the situation of some 600 prisoners of various nationalities being held at the US naval enclave situated in southeast Cuba.

Amnesty International this week said the inmates are enclosed all day in tiny cells, with no legal charges filed against them or recognition of their status as prisoners of war, despite being arrested in relation to the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in late 2001.

According to Red Cross International, there are minors among the Guantánamo inmates, who come from 40 countries and speak 16 different languages.

The Cuban delegation argued that with its decision it was preventing the United States from recurring to the "non-action" procedure, a mechanism that blocks discussion on a proposed resolution in the Commission.

Mora Godoy said that if the non-action motion prospered, the United States would say that the Commission had rejected a resolution to censure it for the human rights violations of the Guantánamo prisoners.

In Cuba on Thursday, Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque said that if Washington had succeeded in a non-action motion, the issue would have been shelved by the Commission on Human Rights and, "de facto," would have blocked "discussion not only now, but also in the future."

But the United States celebrated the Cuban decision as its own victory anyway. Non-governmental human rights groups, meanwhile, were upset with the fate of the resolution that Havana first proposed last week.

And representatives of some countries said they were relieved by the Cuban announcement.

"Guantánamo has faded," a European delegate from a country that has sent troops to back the U.S.-led invasion in Iraq, told IPS. "So much the better for some," said the diplomat, who requested anonymity.

Cuba is itself debilitated by the successful vote last week against its human rights record. But it was a relatively close vote on a "soft" censure presented by Honduras, though clearly promoted by Washington.

Peter Splinter, spokesman for Amnesty International, noted that for the third consecutive year the Commission is wrapping up its annual six-week session without discussing the Guantánamo question.

It is alarming to see what has happened, said Splinter. Amnesty had applauded the Cuban initiative, and had even said it was not ambitious enough.

The Guantánamo case was also one of the reasons why Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stepped down from the post two years ago. She found herself on a collision course with Washington on the matter of the prisoners' legal status and because of her position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Chris Sidoti, International Service for Human Rights, a Geneva-based organization, says there is a "conspiracy of silence" in the Commission when it comes to questions like Guantánamo and Iraq.

The Guantánamo issue has not improved any of the Commission members' credibility, said Sidoti.

The Cuba-sponsored motion, moderate in content and written in rather non-confrontational terms, was perhaps the first attempt to break the consensus of silence on Guantánamo.

Sidoti said the United States and some of its allies on the Commission were preparing to undermine the Cuban proposal with a procedural mechanism that they always condemn when it is used by others.

It is a demonstration of how during this year's sessions the credibility of those countries who claim to be human rights defenders has been weakened, he said in reference to the United States and other western nations.

In the bloc of western countries, all supported the United States, said Mora Godoy. By withdrawing the motion, "we have saved face" for the Europeans, commented the diplomat.

The Havana delegate maintained that the western countries and some from Latin America were afraid of confronting "the fascist practices" of the US government and of being targeted for reprisals and reprimands.

He also said that the United States had threatened those countries on the Commission that have citizens held at Guantánamo: if they voted in favor of the Cuban resolution, they would see contact with the prisoners blocked.

Nicholas Howen, secretary-general of the International Commission of Jurists, called for the Cuban resolution on Guantánamo to be taken up in next year's sessions, in spite of the intense politicking surrounding the initiative.

Cuba said it reserves the right to present the draft resolution again in the Commission on Human Rights or "any other forum it deems appropriate."

Minister Pérez Roque said in Havana that "to see a crime and not fight it is also a sort of complicity." But recognized that the legal status of the Guantánamo prisoners "can no longer be taken up by the Commission," and is left open for debates in other international arenas.

Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court began hearings Tuesday on the legality of holding the prisoners at Guantánamo for an undetermined period of time, based on the appeals presented by families of 12 Kuwaiti and two Australian inmates.

Guantánamo is "a major human rights scandal that has widespread implications for the whole world," said Amnesty last week.

Many observers believe the ruling by the highest US court will set a precedent for a broader issue: the legality of many of the policies adopted by President George W. Bush in his "war on terrorism."

(* With reporting by Patricia Grogg in Havana.)

(Inter Press Service)


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