‘Gitmo shut down not Red Cross priority, clarity for prisoners more important’

The US Congress is the main obstacle to closing the Guantanamo Bay prison, Simon Schorno, Red Cross spokesman told RT, adding that his organization’s priority wasn’t shutting the facility down, but providing clarity of their future for the inmates.

The head of the Red Cross International Committee (ICRC), Peter Maurer, met with Barack Obama on Wednesday to discuss the three-month long hunger strike by the prisoners at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

He also passed an on open letter by 25 human rights organizations, which urged the US president to keep his campaign promise and close the Guantanamo prison.

Despite the Red Cross raising the Gitmo issue in the media only this week, the organization’s spokesperson, Simon Schorno, says the lack of publicity doesn’t mean that the hunger strike was previously neglected by him and his colleagues.

RT:The White House says it's still committed to shutting down the facility. The Red Cross chief met with President Obama earlier this week. What makes Guantanamo so difficult to close?

Simon Schorno: Well, essentially, you have the issue of the [US] Congress, which has blocked the transfer out of Guantanamo and the possibility to bring the detainees on the mainland to be tried on the mainland. And this is the main blockage at the moment, which is a political blockage. And our president, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, [Peter Maurer], was here this week. Two days ago he met with President Obama. We met at the highest levels of government to try to press for change. And at this point it is a political decision that Congress, in particular, but also the Administration have to make.  

RT:Why have organizations like yours not reacted sooner to the hunger strikers’ and conditions at the detention center?

SS: Well, we are. We are currently at the detention center and we’re the only organization inside the detention facility. We’ve been visiting Guantanamo since 2002, and so in fact we follow very closely the hunger strike, its effect on the detainees themselves. We try to understand what’s going on. We try to intervene on the confidential level with authorities, but we certainly are in there trying to do what we can.

Again, the causes of the hunger strike – the hunger strike must be seen as a symptom. The causes of the hunger strike are the uncertainty that weights very heavily on each and every detainee at Guantanamo, and that’s the cause of the hunger strike. So, we’re trying to really elicit a response and a change of position to tackle the causes behind the hunger strike. We also have a doctor, currently, in Guantanamo trying to assess the situation, trying to assess the medical response the authorities are giving to the strike. I think it’s fair to say that we’re right in there.  

People dress in orange jumpsuits and black hoods as activists demand the closing of the US military's detention facility in Guantanamo during a protest, part of the Nationwide for Guantanamo Day of Action, April 11, 2013 in New York's Times Square. (AFP Photo / Stan Honda)

RT:The reason I’m asking this is that because there was very little coverage of what’s been happening in Guantanamo during the past three months. And it’s only this week that the NGOs and human rights organizations turned their eyes to the hunger strike…

SS: I don’t want to speak for the NGOs. They have their own motivations and their own agenda.  The way the ICRC works is that we work primarily through bilateral confidential dialogue and intervening directly in the detention facilities themselves and then confidentially with the authorities, including the highest level – with President Obama, like we did this week. The lack of publicity, the lack of public action by the ICRC shouldn’t be confused with lack of action proper. It’s not because we don’t voice our concerns publicly that we don’t try to tackle the problem from the humanitarian stand point.  

RT:Will the letter to the President, backed by many respected NGO's, have any impact with the government?

SS: The ICRC isn’t part of that effort by the NGOs. We sent out the letter, but we’re not co-signatories of that letter. We work independently of other organizations and NGOs. So we’re not part of that effort. What we have done is on a bilateral basis, based on our own contacts with the administration, based on our own contact with the detaining authorities, with the Department of Defense, we are raising those issues.

For us, the issue is not that of closure of Guantanamo. The issue is to provide a clear legal framework that regiments the detention of people at Guantanamo. And that’s what we are pressing on. For us, the closure isn’t the issue. What’s at stake is the legality of the detention and the ability to provide clarity for the detainees, so that they know about their fate.