The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) made an exceedingly rare public statement on Jan. 18, “calling for accelerated efforts by the US government to transfer all of the [Guantanamo Bay] detainees that it deemed eligible for transfer without further delay, and with due respect for their safety and opportunities for reintegration.” The statement begins by expressing the ICRC is “gravely concerned” – serious language in the diplomatic sphere – “that the remaining people held at Guantanamo Bay have been behind bars for so many years with little or no clarity as to what will happen to them,” noting that some were “deemed eligible for transfer” more than a decade ago. (The New York Times’ Guantanamo Docket has information on all 39 men remaining at Guantanamo, almost half of whom are approved for transfer so long as certain security conditions are met, some for over a decade in an early Obama-era review process, others in recent years after review by the Periodic Review Board.)  

As the statement recites, the ICRC is “an independent and neutral humanitarian organization… empowered by the 1949 Geneva Conventions to visit detainees and prisoners of war to assess conditions of detention and treatment of people.” Its broader mandate includes “ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of armed conflict and other situations of violence.” The ICRC has a unique role among international organizations, privately interceding with States “with the aim of ensuring that detainees’ dignity and wellbeing are respected and that the conditions of detention are in line with laws and internationally recognized standards.” ICRC delegations began visiting the Guantanamo detention facility in January 2002, shortly after it opened. For 20 years, it has been meeting privately with detainees who consent to do so, addressing concerns to U.S. authorities, and facilitating communication between detainees and their families. 

Crucially, the ICRC’s communications with detainees are confidential, as are its communications with governments that hold them. That’s what enables the organization to maintain trust on all sides of an armed conflict, in situations all over the globe, in order to further its humanitarian mission. It’s also what makes Tuesday’s statement publicly calling on the U.S. government to take action exceedingly rare, if not unprecedented. (If readers are aware of other instances of the ICRC calling for specific action by individual States, please let us know; Gabor Rona noted in his October 2020 Just Security article about former President Donald Trump’s pardons of individuals accused or convicted of war crimes how “extraordinary” it was that the ICRC had issued an explainer on what international law says about pardons for war crimes “[a]s the issue… receives increased attention in the United States.”)

The new statement speaks to “a constructive and comprehensive dialogue” with the U.S. government on Guantanamo that the ICRC expects will continue. So why the public statement? It’s likely the ICRC has repeatedly communicated its concerns directly and confidentially to the Biden administration (as is its general mode of engaging governments), and after a full year, did not receive responses indicating that the administration has the political will to fully address its concerns.  

This is troubling – it indicates a high likelihood that there are not yet serious efforts underway to repatriate detainees who can be sent to their home countries (including an Algerian detainee recommended for transfer in 2016 and a Tunisian detainee recommended for transfer over a decade ago) and to resettle in third countries those who cannot be sent home (including Yemeni nationals eligible for transfer, some for over a decade, and a stateless Rohingya detainee).  

True to the ICRC’s mandate, its statement is careful to explain the humanitarian rationale for the public call to release those in long-term limbo:

“The detainees deemed eligible by the US government should be transferred today… After 20 years and well over 100 visits, we see that the more time passes for these detainees, the more they and their families suffer. The humanitarian rationale for enabling those to leave who are cleared to do so is obvious, and all the more so for those whose departures have been delayed for so long.”

Tuesday’s statement should serve as a serious wake-up call to the Biden administration, which has barely begun efforts to transfer detainees and has yet to name officials responsible for doing so in the Departments of State and Defense (which, under Obama, had Special Envoy positions charged with implementing transfers and other aspects of Guantanamo policy). The Biden administration need not name envoys to get serious about transfers, but it does need a diplomatic strategy and empowered officials responsible for implementing it. It’s not too late for 2022 to be the year that Guantanamo is on a path towards responsible closure

IMAGE: A physical therapy room for older detainees is seen at the US Guantanamo Naval Base on October 16, 2018, in Guantanamo Base, Cuba. (Photo by SYLVIE LANTEAUME/AFP via Getty Images)