NEW YORK — The United Nations recommendation that the United States should release all detainees being held at Guantanamo or bring them to trial and shut the facility down is one of the strongest criticisms yet of the U.S. torture policy. While the Bush administration rejected the U.N. recommendation, the fate of Guantanamo’s detainees represents the top ethical and medical challenge facing the White House.

The U.N. recommendation is the result of an investigation carried out by a five-member U.N. team about the conditions of the detainees in that facility. Its findings are based on interviews with ex-detainees and lawyers, media reports and a questionnaire filled by the U.S. government. The Bush administration claims that the report is not valid since it is not based on an actual visit to Guantanamo. The U.N. team rejected such a visit since it was informed that they wouldn’t be able to meet privately with the detainees.

The detainees in Guantanamo number now about 490, were captured in Afghanistan and other countries, and are called “enemy combatants” because they were taken prisoners on battlefields. However, an article appearing in the National Journal article shows more than half of the Guantanamo detainees were in fact abducted in the mountains of Pakistan by warlords who were rewarded in cash by U.S. forces. By considering the detainees “enemy combatants” the U.S. government justifies denying them protections normally given to prisoners of war.

The Bush administration claims that because Guantanamo is in Cuba, U.S. constitutional protections don’t apply to the prisoners there. However, Amnesty International has stated that conditions in Guantanamo amount to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of prisoners and as such are prohibited by international conventions. In that regard, article 2, section 2 of the U.N. Convention Against Torture states that “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, maybe invoked as a justification of torture.”

According to the U.N. report, corroborated by photographic evidence, detainees were shackled and hooded. If they resisted, they were beaten and stripped. In addition, prisoners were subjected to sleep-depriving noise and light and to forced feedings, jabbing food tubes through the nose of hunger strikers, tactics tantamount to torture, according to the Red Cross.

For the U.S., a real ethical challenge is how to continue its war on terrorism and at the same time reaffirm its adherence to international human-rights principles. The U.S. should serious investigate and prosecute all allegations of torture and cruel and inhuman treatment of Guantanamo inmates. At the same time, it should form a medical committee to evaluate the health status of prisoners and take immediate action to provide them adequate treatment. How the U.S. will ultimately deal with the Guantanamo issue offers the U.S. a chance to live up to the ideals framed in its own constitution.

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