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U.N. seeks access to military prisons

UNITED NATIONS – A group of 31 U.N. human rights investigators issued a rare joint appeal to the United States to give them access to detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The request came at the end of a weeklong meeting in Geneva on the impact of the U.S.-led counterterrorism campaign on human rights. It signaled mounting frustration over the Bush administration’s refusal to open the doors of its detention centers to U.N. human rights monitors.

The statement asks that four specialists – trained to check for evidence of torture, arbitrary detention, medical and physical abuse, and judicial independence – be invited to Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay “at the earliest possible date” to determine whether the human rights of prisoners are “properly upheld.” They would present findings to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

“The way prisoners are treated in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo is totally contrary to international law and humanitarian law,” said Doudou Diene of Senegal, the United Nations’ special rapporteur for racism and discrimination. We want to “send a team of special rapporteurs to go and visit those places.”

U.S. officials said they are already providing detainee access to representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross and see no need for the United Nations’ rights experts to duplicate that work.

Richard Grenell, the spokesman for the U.S. mission to the United Nations, said the Bush administration was “very disappointed” that the United Nations’ human rights investigators had singled out the United States for criticism when they “have plenty to do” investigating abuses in places like Zimbabwe, North Korea and Cuba.

“The International Committee of the Red Cross has full access,” Grenell said. “I don’t think the U.N. human rights rapporteurs should be placing this as a priority knowing there are other human rights priorities around the world.”

Although the United States grants the Red Cross access to its main detention facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, it has sought to prevent the organization from interviewing some of the most important detainees.

ICRC spokeswoman Amanda Williamson said the organization has been pressing the Bush administration to provide “access to people held in undisclosed places of detention. We haven’t been granted access yet. But the dialogue still continues.”

The treatment of prisoners of war is governed by the Geneva Conventions, which require combatants to provide access to the International Committee for the Red Cross.

U.S. officials say that they have no obligation to grant access to human rights investigators.


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