After First Ever Guantánamo Visit, UN Rapporteur Finds Dehumanized, Traumatized Men Subjected to Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment That May Rise to the Level of Torture


Campaigners for the closure of Guantánamo outside a US government building in Washington, D.C. on January 11, 2017 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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I wrote the following article for the “Close Guantánamo” website, which I established in January 2012, on the 10th anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, with the US attorney Tom Wilner. Please join us — just an email address is required to be counted amongst those opposed to the ongoing existence of Guantánamo, and to receive updates of our activities by email.

On Monday June 26, 7,837 days since the prison at Guantánamo Bay opened, and on the 25th anniversary of the establishment of the UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council (“independent human rights experts with mandates to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective”) issued a devastatingly critical report about systemic, historic and ongoing human rights abuses at the prison, based on the first ever visit by a Special Rapporteur — Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, who visited the prison in February.

At the time of her visit, just 34 men were held at the prison (a number now reduced to 30), out of the 779 men and boys who have been held by the US military throughout the prison’s long history, and, as the Special Rapporteur admitted, she agreed with every “detainee or former detainee,” who, “[i]n every meeting she held” with them, told her, “with great regret,” that she had arrived “too late.”

However, it is crucial to understand that the lateness of the visit was not through a lack of effort on the part of the UN; rather, it was a result of a persistent lack of cooperation by the US authorities — part of a pattern of obstruction, secrecy and surveillance that prevented any UN visit because the authorities failed to comply with the Terms of Reference for Country Visits by Special Procedure Mandate Holders, which require “[c]onfidential and unsupervised contact with witnesses and other private persons, including persons deprived of their liberty.”

Finally, the Biden administration agreed to the Terms of Reference, and the Special Rapporteur duly noted that she was allowed access “to detainees, including ‘high value’ and ‘non-high value’ detainees,” in meetings which “were confidential and unsupervised.” She also thanked the US government for their cooperation, noting that “[f]ew countries take meaningful steps to address egregious past human rights violations or undertake action to undo the most shocking of harms,” and pointed out that the US government “understood that this visit would put its detention practices, repatriation and resettlement efforts, and treatment of victims and family members of the 9/11 terrorist attacks under close scrutiny,” adding that “it is a sign of a commitment to international law that the visit occurred, was highly cooperative, constructive, and engaged at all levels of government.”

The Rapporteur also interviewed “military and civilian personnel, military commission personnel, and defense lawyers,” as well as “victims, survivors, and families of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, former detainees in countries of resettlement or repatriation, and human rights and humanitarian organizations,” and the 23-page report consists of three sections: Part 1, dealing with victims and survivors of the 9/11 attacks, Part 2, dealing with Guantánamo, and Part 3, dealing with the repatriation and resettlement of former prisoners. I’ll discuss Parts 1 and 2 in this article, and Part 3 in a second article to follow.

Whilst it’s important that the Rapporteur met victims’ families and survivors of the “crime against humanity” committed on September 11, 2001, and reviewed the US government’s response to their needs over the last 21 years, she was also unswerving in her assertion that, although she acknowledged “the collective exhaustion and frustration with the lack of criminal accountability for 9/11,” and recognized “differing views within the victim community on the legitimacy of the military commissions, the use of the death penalty, and the operation of the Guantánamo detention facility,” which led to “many difficult conversations with victims and families addressing the direct consequences of the systematic practices of rendition, torture, and arbitrary detention,” her unequivocal position was that “the systematic rendition and torture at multiple (including black) sites and thereafter at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — with the entrenched legal and policy practices of occluding and protecting those who ordered, perpetrated, facilitated, supervised, or concealed torture — comprise the single most significant barrier to fulfilling victims’ rights to justice and accountability,” adding that, “In her view, the use of torture was a betrayal of the rights of victims.”


Torture, of course, was at the heart of the “war on terror” that the Bush administration declared after 9/11, when “hundreds of Muslim men were rendered across borders, forcibly disappeared, held in secret detention, and subject to egregious human rights violations,” not only in the CIA’s “black sites,” but also at Guantánamo, and the Special Rapporteur reaffirmed the finding by the UN Special Procedures — in 2022, drawing on a 2010 report on which I was the lead author — of “structured, discriminatory, and systematic rendition, secret detention, and torture and ill-treatment at multiple (including black) sites and at Guantánamo Bay.”

In a hugely significant sentence, she “acknowledge[d] that the vast majority of the men rendered and detained there were brought without cause and had no relationship whatsoever with the events that took place on 9/11,” a conclusion that has, to date, eluded the US government, and may well be part of the claim, in a curt response to the report by Michele Taylor, the US’s Permanent Representative at the UN Human Rights Council, that the Biden administration “disagrees in significant respects with many factual and legal assertions the SR has made.”

Acknowledging that she had access “to previous and current detention sites, including Camp X-Ray, Iguana (now dismantled), Echo 1 and 2, Delta Camps 1 to 4, Camps 5 and 6, and Camp 7,” and that “the current conditions at Camps 5 and 6 [where, respectively, all the “high value” detainees and “non-high value” detainees are held] include the requisite sleeping accommodations, sanitation, food service, recreational facilities and activities, and communal prayer under internationally accepted standards for the majority of detainees,” she nevertheless found that “significant structural shortcomings remain,” not only in relation to “health, family, and justice,” which are all discussed in detail and analyzed below, but also through the “arbitrariness” that “pervades the entirety of the Guantánamo detention infrastructure— rendering detainees vulnerable to human rights abuse and contributing to conditions, practices, or circumstances that lead to arbitrary detention.”

On this particular point, the Special Rapporteur honed in on the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) that “are in place to regulate every aspect of detention operations, including detainee reception and transfer, restraints, cell block searches, mess operations, religious accommodations, and medication distribution,” noting that “the SOPs for Camps 5 and 6 are unavailable to the detainees or their counsel without a court order, in potential contravention of the right of persons detained and their legal counsel to know the rules which regulate their place of detention,” and also noting that, although she “was informed by the US Government that detainees and their counsel are regularly briefed broadly on camp rules and procedures,” the reality is that “detainees, counsel, and even guard force personnel voiced significant frustration at the arbitrariness, confusion, and inconsistency that characterizes implementation of the SOPs.”

With regard to several procedures, the Special Rapporteur noted that they “establish a structural deprivation and non-fulfilment of rights necessary for a humane and dignified existence and constitute at a minimum, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”

The procedures in question involve, firstly, the requirement “to address detainees by their Internment Serial Number” instead of their names, which “undermines each detainee’s self-worth and dignity, particularly in the lived context of profound deprivation of liberty, communication, and relationship with the outside world,” and, secondly, the restraints used whenever detainees are moved anywhere, which “are inherently degrading,” and “should be prohibited and only used as a last resort, in exceptional circumstances, and in compliance with the principles of necessity and proportionality.” She noted that the use of restraints “inculcates an ongoing experience of helplessness and affirms domination, producing psychological distress for many.”

Thirdly, she expressed “serious concern that certain disciplinary measures like forced cell extractions and solitary confinement continue to be implemented disproportionately and over-expansively, amounting to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” and, fourthly, she found the government’s “near-constant surveillance of both ‘non-high value’ and ‘high value’ detainees through visual monitoring to be excessive,” amounting to “humiliating and degrading treatment, especially for those who have never been charged with a single crime.”

It’s interesting to note that, although the SOPs have been revised numerous times over the years, all of the problems highlighted above have been in place since the earliest days of Guantánamo’s existence, and involve systemic dehumanization, and a hysterical perception of the potential threat posed by detainees, which was ludicrous and inhumane when it was first implemented, but is truly grotesque when continued for 21 years.

Health Care

Regarding the health care provided, the Special Rapporteur noted that “the facilities, medical personnel, and treatment available” are “adequate in providing basic health care and services,” but she was “gravely concerned by the failure of the US Government to provide torture rehabilitation programs,” and was particularly scathing about the “specialist care and facilities” that “are not adequate to meet the complex and urgent mental and physical health issues of detainees, including permanent disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, chronic pain including headaches and chest, stomach, back, rectal, and joint pains, gastrointestinal and urinary issues, complex and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder, and other current physical and psychological manifestations of torture and rendition after 9/11, as well as the cumulative and intersectional harms arising from continued detention, deep psychological distress, deprivation of physical, social, and emotional support from family and community while living in a detention environment without trial for some and without charge for others for 21 years, hunger striking and force-feeding, self-harm and suicidal ideation, and accelerated aging.”

She added that she found that “many of the detainees she met evidenced deep psychological harm and distress — including profound anxiety, helplessness, hopelessness, stress and depression, and dependency.”

Complicating matters further, the Special Rapporteur noted the persistent failures in the provision of medical care for those with severe problems that cannot be addressed in the prison, making particular reference to the case of Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi (aka Nashwan al-Tamir), who suffers from spinal stenosis, has had numerous operations, and was the subject of a damning UN opinion earlier this year (which I wrote about here). As she noted, his “medical history and deteriorating conditions … were allegedly disputed by medical personnel and only after legal representatives filed several emergency motions was a neurosurgeon brought in again.”

The Special Rapporteur was also concerned that “examination by an independent, civilian medical professional not associated with the Government is available only in rare instances and only when directed to do so by the military commissions or courts,” noting that “detainees who are involved in legal proceedings appear to have increased access to independent health care/doctors,” and also noting that, despite efforts in court to secure Mixed Medical Commissions (of US and non-US experts) to assess certain prisoners, none have been appointed by the government.

She was particularly scathing about “the lack of full clinical independence” at the prison, because “[a]ll medical personnel responsible for detainee medical care are DoD personnel,” and she “expressed her profound disquiet that the current supervisory chain of command lacks clinical independence and compromises the ability of medical personnel to fully treat and document contemporary manifestations of past torture and ill-treatment in complete independence,” noting that “[e]ven the Chief Medical Officer, who is responsible for overseeing the physical and mental health care of detainees, reports to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs within DoD.”

As she further explained, “multiple detainees expressed concern regarding the lack of trust between detainees and medical personnel,” and “consistently told her of current difficulties trusting medical personnel due to past medical personnel being directly complicit in prior torture and ill-treatment and/or due to broader ‘dual loyalty’ concerns.” She observed that, “for some detainees, amid such pervasive distrust, the mere receipt of medical and psychological care under continuing US custody at Guantánamo Bay may be triggering of past torture and traumatic experiences, specifically engaging severe psychological distress and anxiety,” and added, “Again, the US Government’s refusal to facilitate independent care for this unique detainee population, including through Mixed Medical Commissions, raises serious concerns under relevant international law standards.”

The Special Rapporteur also dealt with problems regarding prisoners’ medical records, which are not readily made available to detainees or their lawyers, and involve “arbitrariness in practice.” She noted that “detainees, former detainees, and counsel expressed frustration that medical records — if provided — are often incomplete or even recomposed to omit past torture and ill-treatment,” and “underscore[d] in this context the continuing obligation of the US Government under the Convention against Torture to ensure full access to medical records for torture victims.”

She also discussed how she “was informed by detainees, defense lawyers, and medical personnel of multiple instances in the weeks preceding her visit when counsel was not notified of significant detainee health issues, including emergency hospitalization, surgery, urgent diagnoses, and a COVID-19 outbreak, in a timely manner, rather post facto,” and also noted that, “for detainees not subject to legal proceedings, access to medical records is also inconsistent and ambiguous.”

In conclusion, the Special Rapporteur found that “the foregoing conditions constitute a violation of the right to available, adequate, and acceptable health care,” and “have resulted in the significant deterioration of the physical and mental health of detainees, compounding post-traumatic symptoms and other severe and persistent health consequences co-related to temporal continuities of healthcare provision at Guantánamo Bay,” further explaining that “the cumulative effects of these structural deficiencies amount to, at minimum, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under international law,” and adding that “the US Government’s failure to provide torture rehabilitation squarely contravenes its obligations under the Convention against Torture.”

Right to Access to Family

One of Guantánamo’s enduring barbarities is the prisoners’ isolation from their families, because no family visits are allowed, and for many years even calls to family members were a rarity. Only letters were allowed — as a result of pressure from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the only outside body able to visit Guantánamo — but it seems clear that not all letters were delivered, either because the recipients were regarded as “uncooperative,” or as a deliberate attempt to disrupt any pattern of comfort for the prisoners, and when letters did get through, they were often heavily, and arbitrarily censored.

The Special Rapporteur remarked on “the improvements in access to family through calls and video conferences over time, particularly through the support and cooperation of the ICRC,” adding that, “through the perseverance of lawyers and the ICRC, family ties have been established for almost all detainees,” although, “[i]n some cases, detainees’ families only learned that their relatives were being held at Guantánamo after 15+ years.”

Despite this, however, as the Special Rapporteur noted, in one of the most heartbreaking passages in the report, “Every detainee and family member that the SR met evidenced unrelenting grief and trauma related to the inadequate and arbitrary access to their family at Guantánamo.” She found that “failures to ensure notification to family of the situation of detention, including legal status, transfer, and place of detention over time, as well as the ongoing suffering due to a lack of information (particularly for those with family living in conflict zones), the length of time without contact, and intervening family events, such as deaths and births, have prevented the meaningful realization of the right to family.”

As she also explained, “Every detainee she met exhibited profound psychological distress and suffering when sharing their loss of family, their unrelenting anxiety for the welfare of their families, and their complete helplessness and lack of power to change their circumstances.”

Poignantly, she also noted “the great importance and sense of mutual support and community among the detainees as fellow ‘brothers,’ particularly under the conditions of confinement that greatly limit meaningful familial contact.”

In spite of the progress, “Detainees, counsel, and military personnel identified several ongoing obstacles to meaningful family communication, including the lack of confidentiality of family calls, calls that are not in real-time, poor or often last-minute communication with regard to call cancellations and delays, and limited frequency of calls at odds with the actual numbers of remaining detainees.”

The Special Rapporteur noted that she was “made aware of developments in the frequency of calls between detainees and family members, which increased for ‘non-high value’ detainees from quarterly to monthly calls for some,” but criticized the lack of parity between “non-high value” and “high value” detainees, with family calls for the former only introduced in 2015, and subject to restrictions, spuriously based on “security,” that prevent real-time communication with their families. She noted that “she was told that the impact of the extended delays of the non-real-time video calls for ‘high-value’ detainees makes normal conversations impossible,” and stressed that “the discrepancy in family access between categories of detainees” was “arbitrary,” also asserting that “there should be an equal right of family access for all detainees irrespective of category.”

She also “regret[ted] that despite requests, the US Government has not allowed detainee family members to visit in-person apart from one exceptional example” — that of Majid Khan’s father and sister, who “were permitted to attend a recent military commission proceeding [last October] but only at the sentencing phase.” As she noted, “This absolute prohibition continues to breach the US Government’s  obligations to detainees to promote and protect their rights to family access under international law.”

In closing, she also noted that she was “uniquely concerned about those individuals cleared for release” (currently, 16 of the 30 men still held) “who continue to be subject to limited access to family despite the recognition of their anticipated release.” As she explained, “Reintegration may be positively impacted by increases in access,” and she “highlight[ed] that relevant military practice supports such a procedure, noting that correspondence with family is often subject to individualized considerations, making the continued restrictions particularly arbitrary for those who are cleared for release.”

Justice: The Right to Counsel

Regarding justice — an elusive concept at Guantánamo — the Special Rapporteur began by noting that “[t]he right to access to counsel is well settled under international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” and is “vital to ensuring that the rights of all persons deprived of their liberty are respected,” adding that it is “an entitlement on the part of all detained persons that attaches from the moment a person is detained.”

This, however, was not always recognized at Guantánamo, where men were held for nearly two and a half years (until Rasul v. Bush in June 2004) without any rights whatsoever. The Special Rapporteur “recognize[d] that positive strides have been made regarding access to counsel since Guantánamo Bay detainees were first rendered and endured prolonged periods — in many cases more than seven years — without any effective assistance of legal counsel,”

She made a point of “underscor[ing] to the US Government the importance of facilitating prompt, unrestricted, and confidential attorney-client relationships and communications — regardless of the category of counsel — not just because it is required as a matter of international human rights law norms and standards, but also because it is necessary to protect the rule of law, the integrity of the detention review, habeas, and military commission proceedings, and at the most visceral level, the human dignity of men deprived of their liberty for whom meetings with their attorneys are the only external social contact they are granted aside from the time spent with their own ‘brothers’ and the guard force.”

She noted, however, that, across the different types of Counsel — “for military commission proceedings, habeas corpus cases in federal court, administrative Periodic Review Board hearings, and other matters related to detention at Guantánamo” — different government bodies are involved. As she stated, “the DoD Office of General Counsel — together with the Department of Justice, as needed — reviews habeas counsel requests, the Office of Military Commissions reviews military commission counsel requests, and the Periodic Review Secretariat reviews private counsel access.” All are overseen by the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, but although the Special Rapporteur “was informed that while governance across these different categories of counsel may be different, it remains consistent and cohesive in practice,” what she found was that that “an arbitrary hierarchy of counsel access has arisen from these distinct procedures.”

Based on interviews with detainees and counsel, she found that “the scope of what can be discussed with detainees, the scope of comfort and other essential items that can be provided to detainees, and the scope of access to information including about conditions of confinement and medical developments all depend on the category of counsel, and that guard force personnel invoke the applicable rules and protective orders to justify discrepancies,” and noted that she was “deeply concerned that the idiosyncrasies of the various governing regimes have led to arbitrariness and unjustifiable inequities.”

As an example, she explained that “she was informed that military commission defense counsel for detainees who have been charged are permitted to bring their clients a far wider range of comfort items and even medicines than counsel for detainees who have not been charged; and military counsel often receives additional information and case updates that are not transmitted to civilian counsel.” She “underscore[d] that all detainees — regardless of whether they have been charged or not or cleared for transfer or not — deserve equal, unhindered access to counsel, particularly given the torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment to which all detainees have been subject.”

It may surprise some readers to realize that, in some ways, “non-high value” detainees have less rights than “high value” detainees, but for those who have studied Guantánamo closely over many years, it is a persistent absurdity, and several of the men held, who were never charged because they were too insignificant, have, on occasion, pleaded with the authorities to find some alleged crime to charge them with, recognizing that plea deals have often been the only way to actually secure release from the prison.

The Special Rapporteur also criticized the US authorities for persistent disruption to attorney-client meetings, which she characterized as arbitrary. She “note[d] with concern that detainees and attorneys alike repeatedly highlighted instances where the US Government denied attorneys in-person and virtual access, often at the last minute while already on the island, without any stated grounds for the denial,” adding that “[s]uch restrained access to counsel has severe and persistent mental health consequences for detainees,” and she also noted her “particular concern” about “multiple reported instances whereby military commissions counsel with longstanding attorney-client relationships with detainees, including detainees who have previously testified as witnesses in ongoing cases and/or been named in witness lists by the prosecution or otherwise appointed for purposes of ongoing plea negotiations, were denied both virtual and in-person access to their clients, including on the basis that their clients did not have an ‘active case or controversy’ before the military commissions.”

As a result, she “warn[ed] the US Government against asserting exigent circumstances to justify restrictions that functionally undermine the right to counsel access and puts at risk the entire integrity of the military commission system,” adding, “The use of bureaucratic delays and opaque justifications to deny the right to counsel access squarely contravenes the right to access to counsel free from ‘restrictions, influence, pressure or undue interference from any quarter.’”

After noting “with concern the years-long history of litigation disputing the confidentiality of attorney-client meeting rooms at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, including in spaces where the same detainees were previously subject to torture and other enhanced interrogation methods,” she also reminded the US authorities that, according to international human rights law standards, “[i]nterviews between a detained or imprisoned person and his legal counsel may be within sight, but not within the hearing, of a law enforcement official.”

Justice: The Right to Fair Trial

Regarding the right to a fair trial, the Special Rapporteur “reiterate[d] that the US Government is obligated to ensure that detainees are afforded the fair trial and due process procedural guarantees enshrined under international human rights law,” which “includes the right to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal, the presumption of innocence, the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the criminal charges brought against them and to be tried … without ‘undue delay.’”

At Guantánamo, of course, all of the above has essentially been shredded, and of the nine men currently facing charges in the military commissions, six have been caught up in seemingly endless pre-trial hearings for the last eleven years, a shameful situation that led the Special Rapporteur to observe that, “When a trial does not occur within a reasonable time release must be considered.”

In a crucial paragraph, the Special Rapporteur thoroughly refuted the US government’s claim that “all detainees who remain at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility are detained lawfully as a matter of international law because the United States is engaged in an ongoing non-international armed conflict with al-Qaida and associated forces and may detain enemy belligerents consistent with the law of armed conflict until the end of hostilities.”

As she explained, “under international humanitarian law non-POW detention is based on an imperative threat to security and it is the SR’s position that detention on this basis is an exceptional measure to be sought only on an individuated basis and subject to procedural guarantees including regular, independent, and impartial review of their detention,” adding that, “Under a law of war detention framework, internment must cease as soon as the reasons for it no longer exist.”

As she further explained, “with the passage of time, the US Government is under an increased burden as the detaining State to objectively demonstrate that each detainee continues to pose a serious security threat.” In contrast, however, as she observed “with profound concern,” “of the 30 men remaining at Guantánamo, 19 men have never been charged with a single crime — in some cases, after more than 20 years of detention in US custody.”

As well as this being fundamentally unacceptable in and of itself, the Special Rapporteur also noted that she was “concerned that the continued internment of certain detainees follows from the unwillingness of the authorities to face the consequences of the torture and other ill-treatment to which the detainees were subjected and not from any ongoing threat they are believed to pose,” and “stresse[d] that neither international humanitarian law nor international human rights law countenances concealing evidence of prior misconduct by the detaining authority as a reason for continued detention.”

The Special Rapporteur also took aim at the Periodic Review Boards — a parole-type process, which, over the last ten years, has approved 61 out of 64 prisoners for release — as being a process that “lacks the most basic procedural safeguards,” including the fact that it “is a purely discretionary proceeding that is not independent and that is subject to veto by the political officials on the review committee,” also noting that the fact that the 16 remaining men who have been cleared for release “remain trapped in the Guantánamo detention facility” is “indicative of the Periodic Review Board process’ disconnect from any actual release and the arbitrariness of the cleared men’s ongoing detention.”

She also noted how the prisoners’ habeas corpus rights, long fought for in the courts, have been undermined, with those rights having ended up being “overwhelmingly ineffective both in efficiency of process and delivery of the remedy of actual release for detainees,” and then turned to “fundamental fair trial and due process deficiencies in the military commission system,” noting how, “As one detainee interviewed expressed with exasperation, the system is paralyzed but their only option is to engage.”

As she proceeded to explain, “The endless delays in their cases, and the US Government’s failure to even move past the pre-trial phase clearly fail to meet the ‘undue delay’ threshold,” and she also “expresse[d] serious concern that the military commission hearings have been inundated with an array of procedural obstacles and legitimacy challenges, ranging from issues with interpretation — including due to alleged bias and lack of independence and impartiality — and significant technological failures in the courtroom, to abrupt prosecutor and judge retirements and resignations and conflicts of interest.”

As she noted, “constant exposure to judicial uncertainty and arbitrariness induces a growing sense of helplessness and hopelessness among many detainees and over time, leads to chronic anxiety and depression,” and, as she added, “generally the longer a situation of detention lasts, the higher the likelihood that the prohibition of torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment has been breached.” As a sign of how bad the situation is, she further explained that these are men who “have been held in US custody for over 21 years, with virtually nothing they can do to influence their own situation.”

After recognizing “the ongoing plea bargain negotiations,” which may be the only way out of the deadlocked pre-trial hearings, she “expresse[d] concern at the extent of secrecy that pervades all of the available judicial and administrative proceedings,” noting that she was “particularly concerned about the presumptive classification review of substantial information arising from Guantánamo,” and difficulties experienced by defense lawyers who are “unable to challenge whether evidence produced was derived from torture.”

In conclusion, the Special Rapporteur found that “the United States has failed to promote and protect fundamental fair trial guarantees and [has] severely impeded the detainees’ access to justice,” noting that, “Based on the cumulative conditions of fair trial violations set out above,” which are “compounded by the lack of access to family, significant physical and mental health problems, and other conditions of confinement,” it is “highly unlikely that any detainee can effectively assist with and participate in their own defense.”

Moreover, she found that “the compounding effect of the abovementioned fair trial violations — with respect to all present detainees, regardless of their category of legal proceedings — are of such gravity as to give the deprivation of liberty an arbitrary character,” echoing earlier findings this year by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, in the cases of Abu Zubaydah (one of the three men who have neither been charged not approved for release) and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, one of the six men caught up in pre-trial hearings for the last eleven years.

Although she recognized that “the material conditions of detention at Guantánamo Bay have improved substantially since the first detainees were transferred and in the following years when it was a place characterized by institutionalized and systematic brutality and enduring harm to all who were detained there,” and that “[e]very detainee she met confirmed this improvement,” she also noted that she was required “to both acknowledge substantial improvements to the material conditions of confinement and equally to address as a separate matter, if current detention practices are in compliance with international law.”

“Ongoing cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” that “may also meet the legal threshold for torture”

On this latter point, the Special Rapporteur’s conclusion was unwaveringly critical. Taking into account the failure to “provide any torture rehabilitation to detainees,” and the continuing violence at the prison, the “structural and entrenched physical and mental healthcare deficiencies,” the “inadequate access to family,” and the “ongoing, arbitrary detention characterized by fair trial and due process violations,” even though the US Government “is intimately aware of the depth and severity of many detainees’ current physical and psychological harms,” her conclusion was that “the totality of these factors, without doubt, amounts to ongoing cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment at the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, and may also meet the legal threshold for torture.”

Let that sink in: After the first ever visit to Guantánamo by a UN Special Rapporteur, she has found that, despite improvements to conditions under President Obama and President Biden, the prison’s systemic breaches of human rights obligations mean that the entire existence of the prison constitutes “ongoing cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment,” which “may also meet the legal threshold for torture.”

The Biden administration should take on board this unwaveringly critical assessment, move swiftly to free the 16 men approved for release, and ensure that the treatment of all the men still held meets internationally agreed human rights obligations. A whining one-page response disputing many of the Special Rapporteur’s findings, and seeking to evade culpability by claiming that her conclusions “are solely her own and do not reflect the official views of the United Nations,” is nothing short of insulting.

In conclusion, as if damning assessments about arbitrary detention, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and torture were not enough, the Special Rapporteur also observed that the US government has “an ongoing obligation to ensure the preservation and access to both prior and present detention sites, tied directly to Member State obligations to undertake prompt, independent, and effective investigation of torture under the Convention Against Torture,” noting also “an ongoing obligation to investigate the crimes committed at Guantánamo, including an assessment of whether they meet the threshold of war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

As noted at the start of this article, the Special Rapporteur’s report concludes with a section dealing with the repatriation and resettlement of former prisoners, which I’ll be discussing in a second article to follow.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (see the ongoing photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and, in 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to try to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody.

Since 2019, Andy has become increasingly involved in environmental activism, recognizing that climate change poses an unprecedented threat to life on earth, and that the window for change — requiring a severe reduction in the emission of all greenhouse gases, and the dismantling of our suicidal global capitalist system — is rapidly shrinking, as tipping points are reached that are occurring much quicker than even pessimistic climate scientists expected. You can read his articles about the climate crisis here.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

27 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, the first of two articles about the measured, forensic and absolutely devastating report about Guantanamo issued on June 26 by Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, following her visit to Guantanamo in February. This was the first ever visit by a Special Rapporteur, because, until now, the US government had refused to allow the “confidential and unsupervised contact” with prisoners that is required for the UN’s Special Mandates.

    Although the Special Rapporteur recognized that the situation at Guantanamo has improved since its early years, “when it was a place characterized by institutionalized and systematic brutality and enduring harm to all who were detained there,” what she found at the prison was, nevertheless, a detention system that continues to represent “ongoing cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment”, and “may also meet the legal threshold for torture.”

    The Special Rapporteur condemned numerous aspects of the prison’s operations — the ongoing violence and dehumanization, systemic healthcare failures, isolation from family, and the “ongoing, arbitrary detention characterized by fair trial and due process violations,” all of which are fundamentally unchanged after 21 years.

    She also criticized the “failure to provide torture rehabilitation,” and, in other powerful observations, “acknowledge[d] that the vast majority of the men rendered and detained there were brought without cause and had no relationship whatsoever with the events that took place on 9/11,” and also noted that she was “concerned that the continued internment of certain detainees follows from the unwillingness of the authorities to face the consequences of the torture and other ill-treatment to which the detainees were subjected and not from any ongoing threat they are believed to pose,” and “stresse[d] that neither international humanitarian law nor international human rights law countenances concealing evidence of prior misconduct by the detaining authority as a reason for continued detention.”

    This is a long read — essentially an annotated edit of the report, with some additional observations of my own — but I hope it is of interest. In a second article to follow, I’ll look at the report’s coverage of prisoners resettled in third countries.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote:

    Thank you so much, Andy! I’ll read this calmly later today. This is very important. Terrible that it took them 21 years to get there … and I know it s not entirely their fault … but it’s so long. How long until we see the people that tortured these men be accused, tried and imprisoned? There’s got to be accountability and compensation here.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Natalia. I agree that it took too long, but I really don’t see what else the UN Rapporteurs could have done, given that the US authorities wouldn’t guarantee “confidential and unsupervised contact” with prisoners. Hopefully it will have an impact now, and not just be brushed aside by the Biden administration. It really is devastating in its conclusions.

    As for accountability, those of us who care will need to be prepared for a long struggle ahead, but that too is absolutely essential.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    David Barrows wrote:

    I’m very glad that Ms. Ni Aolain issued her report, and that finally a U.N. Rapporteur was allowed to visit unhampered.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    It is another source of shame that the US government obstructed the Rapporteurs for so long, David, to add to all their other obstructions and crimes.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Susan Hall wrote:

    Thank you, Andy.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Susan. I hope you find it useful.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    David Knopfler wrote:

    Thanks for this Andy – I’m sharing immediately.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, David. Much appreciated.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Nicole Izsak wrote:

    Thanks for sharing, didn’t see this in my news feeds or papers.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Interesting – and slightly troubling – that you didn’t see it elsewhere, Nicole. It had decent coverage in the US – in the New York Times, and by Reuters, NPR, PBS, CBS News, NBC News and Politico – although I think it deserved more detailed coverage than it got, and, of course, all the media outlets have now moved on.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Lucy Martin wrote:

    Thank you for keeping your focus on this atrocity.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re most welcome, Lucy. Thanks for your interest.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalia Rivera Scott wrote, in response to 3, above:

    Andy, yes, we do and I’m sure we’re up for it. Also, how’s your project doing? The accountability one?

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m starting to look into setting it up officially, Natalia. I’ve been holding off because the priority is securing freedom for the 16 men approved for release, but the situation faced by men sent to third countries that are treating them abominably is really quite pressing – and is very much a focus of the intended campaign.

    I hope you saw Elise Swain’s latest report about the last two survivors of the transfers to Kazakhstan:

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Nicole Izsak wrote, in response to 11, above:

    Andy, I guess the BBC didn’t do a good job. Although I live in NYC my go to news is usually BBC (and Hong Kong Free Press). I have NYT subscription but don’t automatically look beyond its headlines, my bad.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Rather shamefully, the BBC didn’t cover it at all, Nicole – and I’m sorry to hear that the NYT didn’t promote it in their headlines. It’s such a devastating report, and it’s really quite dispiriting to see so much of the mainstream media ignoring it, or only mentioning it in passing.

  18. Rich Sroczynski says...

    Thank you for this comprehensive presentation of the Rapporteurs’ historic and impressively well done report. Thanks also for fleshing out her various findings to fully expose what is meant in real, human terms, by terms such as inadequate medical care, torture rehabilitation, legal representation, standard operating procedures, etc.
    I did see reports about the SR’s report on NPR and also other news sites courtesy of the AP reporter who was at the press conference and asked some pointed questions.
    We can only hope it can make a difference but it is our moral responsibility to share it far and wide as well as to promote the obvious solutions.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Rich, and thanks very much for appreciating my efforts to provide further context for some of the Special Rapporteur’s findings. It really is a devastating report, but it seems clear that the mainstream media have already moved on, and so it’s very much up to activists and lawyers and NGOs to try to put pressure on the Biden administration to do what needs to be done. What I thought was particularly powerful about the report was how the Special Rapporteur recognized, and forensically analyzed a detention system that, however much it has been tweaked under Obama and Biden, remains as fundamentally cruel and dehumanizing as it was when Guantanamo first opened. Some of that is obviously deliberate, but some it seems nothing more than habits based on foundational hysteria that no one has been able to highlight for their casual depravity until now – a clear case of the banality of evil, if you like.

  20. Meagan Murphy says...

    Hi Andy. I’m concerned Facebook was going to restrict my account for having agreed to help you hang these posters. I’m concerned Facebook’s abuse of power to restrict those fighting for Justice for those wrongfully tortured. I snapped a photo of my comment. I wish we could demand or hold a committee to demand Facebook unable to stop truth tellers that will aid to justice of those wrongfully oppressed and tortured. Best.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Sorry to hear that Facebook’s unaccountable police bots have considered you a threat, Meagan. Sadly, there seems be nothing we can do apart from hope that we don’t cross lines that we aren’t even aware of – and, of course, if we do, there’s no practical way to challenge these decisions; no well-staffed customer relations department at the end of a phone, for example, as there should be for a company that makes so much money, and that has such unaccountable policing.

  22. Anna says...

    Excellent piece of work by the rapporteur and you, summarising it for us. Would there be any hope of the US government having to specify what they do not accept in this report ? Silly question, as they already claim that it is ‘only’ her personal view, so why would they bother. Discovering who left cocaine in the White House is much more important after all !

    One more reason to abolish UN veto rights for the rich & mighty, which obstruct any meaningful decisions & actions concerning so many human drama’s which are due to political scheming & lack of accountability.

    I’m reading Mansoor and catch myself hoping that somehow miraculously the horror will stop – while I know perfectly well that the worst is still ahead. That is me – a mere reader ! – desperate to escape from an intolerable reality which hundreds of innocent men and boys were subjected to and still suffer from. Not to mention all those who never made it to Guantanamo but were similarly disappeared & tortured elsewhere.

    I’ll never be able to fully grasp how a nominally ‘civilised’ country – which in addition never stops lecturing other countries on the rule of law & human rights – could spawn such stupidity, lack of basic human decency and cultural understanding, and gratuitous viciousness.

    Compare that with the brotherhood, solidarity and courage of resistance among the powerless victims of such oppression, whether in Guantanamo or beleaguered Palestinians. Which example should inspire future generations ?

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Anna. I’m so glad that you got to read the report and that you found my summary helpful. I’m hoping to find the time to write my second article, looking at the resettlement issues, over the next week, now that I’m back from a week’s holiday with Dot – in Turkey, where I undertook a seven-day digital detox, and didn’t switch my laptop on, even though I took it with me.

    That dismissive US response ties in with your rightful disdain for the veto rights held by the five UN Security Council members – the US, the UK, France, Russia and China – who, as I see it, really shouldn’t have those powers. I note that Wikipedia explains that the veto power is “controversial”, because, although supporters regard it as “a critical safeguard against United States domination”, critics call it “the most undemocratic element of the UN, as well as the main cause of inaction on war crimes and crimes against humanity, as it effectively prevents UN action against the permanent members and their allies.”

    I’m so glad you’re reading Mansoor’s book, with its extraordinary, and, to my mind, unprecedented mixture of reportage that is both harrowing and hilarious, and permeated with humanity – in complete contrast to, as you note, the oppressors’ worlds, from Guantanamo to Palestine, which will not be looked on well by future generations – if we live that long!

  24. Anna says...

    Hi Andy, I hope you and Dot had a great, peaceful holiday and I admire your self-control staying off your computer :-).
    In the meantime I finished Mansoor’s book and apart from its contents as such, it has provided a (chrono)logical continuity which I sometimes was missing. Such as the ‘Golden Age’ episode, which explains how it was possible that at some point prisoners were producing art work and enjoying unexpected liberties, while at the same time I would read about continuing strong repression.
    And while I did not discover many new facts (apart from the ‘vacuum cleaners’ being the purveyors of deafening noise …), having them put in perspective from within added so much to the bare facts as reported by ‘outsiders’, such as yourself or various lawyers. Such as the triple ‘suicide’, cell extractions or friendly iguanas.
    I wonder whether he and his fellow prisoners have any idea that their suffering at times eases the much lesser one of I’m sure countless people like me, who compare their own suffering or even minor problems with their immeasurably bigger ones, feel ashamed of their petty self pity and feel new energy and motivation.
    A super simple example is being stuck for hours in an endless, hot and choking line at the airport during Covid and then reminding yourself that someone like Mansoor would give the world to find himself in your place. So their suffering while absolutely senseless as such, sometimes has some beneficial collateral impact, albeit not for themselves.
    – I do hope this does not suggest that I think that there is any justification whatsoever for their suffering ?

    Now some less dramatic reading, before Mohamedou’s account.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Anna, and thanks for recognising the significance of a week’s digital detox. I really think it’s something that everyone should do at least once a year, if they’re able.

    I’m very glad to hear that Mansoor’s book helped you comprehend a more coherent chronology for Guantanamo than had existed before. It did the same for me too, and, as I’ve noted before, what I found particularly shocking was the realisation that, of the dozen or so ‘Red-Eyes’ – the mainly young Yemenis who engaged in hunger strikes and fought the authorities persistently – five are amongst the nine men who reportedly died by committing suicide.

    I’m sure you’re not alone in finding that accounts of deprivation and brutality can help those of us fortunate enough to retain our freedom be more grateful for being free. It doesn’t sound selfish to me; rather, it’s the kind of response – along with empathy – that we need more of, especially in relation to the millions of people leaving their homes as refugees and seeking asylum in our countries.

    Those who seek to keep them out can only so because they deny their humanity, and refuse to identify with the suffering they have endured – and that, of course, is particularly relevant in the UK right now, as Suella Braverman’s vile ‘Illegal Migration Bill’ is close to becoming law, and a prison ship, intended to hold 500 of these horribly demonised individuals, has just arrived at Portland, on the south coast. Braverman’s vile bill – making the very act of being a refugee illegal – makes me more ashamed to be British than any other piece of legislation in my lifetime.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    For a Spanish version, on the World Can’t Wait’s Spanish website, see ‘Después de la primera visita jamás realizada de la ONU a Guantánamo, la relatora descubre hombres deshumanizados y traumatizados sometidos a tratamiento cruel, inhumado y degradante que podría estar al nivel de tortura’:

  27. UN Human Rights Monitor finally visits Guantanamo, calls it “Cruel and Inhuman” – UK Guantanamo Network says...

    […] After First Ever Guantánamo Visit, UN Rapporteur Finds Dehumanized, Traumatized Men Subjected to Cr… […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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