The former Swiss diplomat who runs the International Red Cross ended a round of meetings this week with President Barack Obama and senior U.S. officials with a plea to review the cases of Guantánamo captives not charged with war crimes, and to release those “that no longer pose a threat.”
“In Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere, the United States must strike a balance between security, military necessity and humanity,” Jakob Kellenberger said in a statement Thursday night on his return to Geneva.
While in Washington he met with Obama and his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan as well as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
He also met with retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Following the 9/11 attacks the CIA set up a series of secret interrogation sites around the world that hid hundreds of prisoners out of reach of the Red Cross.
President Obama ordered the sites closed, but the CIA still considers their locations a national security secret.
After failing to make good on a pledge to close Guantánamo’s camps in the first year of his presidency, Obama ordered his administration to implement Periodic Review Boards for Guantánamo captives in indefinite detention, parole-style hearings that let the captive have the help of an advocate.
Kellenberger urged the Obama administration to get on with it.
“In particular, it remains imperative that persons held for security reasons who have not been charged be regularly assessed through a robust review mechanism,” he said in his departure statement. “If such persons no longer pose a threat, they must be released.”
Guantánamo held 171 prisoners on Friday, about 90 of them approved for release or transfer including Toronto-born captive Omar Khadr, 25, who traded a guilty plea to war crimes last year for return to his native Canada to serve out at most eight more years of a prison sentence.
Khadr hasn’t been moved and the last two captives to leave the camps were both dead — one of an apparent heart attack, another of a suspected suicide — because Congress has imposed strict restrictions on releases for the few years.
At Human Rights Watch, Andrea Prasow, senior counterterrorism counsel, said there is no evidence that the Pentagon had begun holding the review boards at the base in southeast Cuba, despite Obama’s March 7 deadline for the panels to begin this work.
“It is unconscionable to fail to have them ready within one year of the executive order when people’s liberty is at stake,” Prasow said, adding that the parole boards “will not make the ongoing indefinite detention without charge legal, but they are better than nothing.”
Prasow, who has observed similar hearings at a U.S. base in Afghanistan, said she expected the hearings “would be open to observers the way they are in Bagram.”
At the Pentagon, Army Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale had no comment on the status of the parole-board style hearings mandated by Obama. Breasseale also said it was inappropriate to comment on the substance of the Red Cross meetings because of mutual agreements for confidentiality on talks with the Geneva-based group, which monitors the whereabouts and conditions of prisoners around the globe.
Last month, the chief of the prison camps, Rear Adm. David B. Woods briefed reporters that a Red Cross delegation had completed a visit to the detention center and had relayed no complaints to him. The visit was the 86th by a Red Cross delegation to the prison camps that the U.S. set up in January 2002, said spokesman Simon Schorno, who would not comment on Woods’ remarks.
Kellenberger declined a request through his staff for an interview.
With Clinton, Kellenberger discussed “the humanitarian crisis in Syria,” said Mark Toner, spokesman for the State Department, according to a transcript of a briefing for reporters.
He said the Red Cross “has been critical in providing much needed humanitarian assistance and protection to the Syrian people under incredibly difficult circumstances,” and that Clinton was “very supportive” of that work.
Kellenberger was in Washington to address the American Society of International Law, and met with senior Obama administration officials for the last time as president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the ICRC. Peter Maurer, like Kellenberger a former Swiss diplomat, takes over July 1.
Kellenberger has been president of the ICRC since 2000, meaning his tenure has covered the history of the controversial detention center in Cuba.