Global Policy Forum

Pentagon Vetoes Guantanamo Visit by UN Official


By Steven Edwards

Canwest News Service
January 23, 2008

The Pentagon has nixed a bid to have a child-soldier expert from the United Nations attend an upcoming hearing for Omar Khadr, it emerged Wednesday. It has also refused permission for a leading French human rights jurist to attend the hearing, which will focus on arguments that international law on child soldiers proscribes Khadr's prosecution as a war criminal. The rulings coincided with a French government call for Washington to drop charges against the Canadian terror suspect, who was 15 when U.S. forces seized him on an Afghan battlefield in July 2002.

The developments could lead to new pressure on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to speak out against in the proceedings, which are taking place before a military commission at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "It's difficult to see how Prime Minister Harper can defend the military commission as an 'appropriate judicial process' when the U.S. refuses to let the leading international experts watch," Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler, Khadr's lead military defence attorney, said from Washington. "The prime minister has been talking about allowing the process to work, but here you have the Department of Defence not letting the leading child soldier advocate in the world watch as the U.S. litigates this question of whether international law permits Omar's prosecution."

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, raised concerns about Khadr's case when she met in November with a senior State Department official in Washington. Lawyers for Khadr, now 21, subsequently requested the Pentagon allow a senior technical officer from her office attend the upcoming hearing, slated for Feb. 4. At the hearing, the lawyers will ask the military judge to dismiss war crimes charges and other against their client on grounds child soldiers are guaranteed "special protection" under a "protocol" - ratified by the United States in 2002 - of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

If the motion is refused, Kuebler says that Khadr, the only westerner remaining in Guantanamo, faces the prospect of becoming the first child soldier to be tried for war crimes. "We hope that people make note of the fact that this process, that the prime minister places such faith in, won't even allow it to be viewed by people who know something about the issue," he said.

The French intervention on Khadr's behalf came after the Pentagon refused permission for Robert Badinter, a high-profile French criminal lawyer who also serves in the senate, to travel to Guantanamo. "We consider that any child associated with an armed conflict is a victim and should be treated as such," French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani told reporters in Paris. "As a minor at the time of the events, Mr. Khadr must, therefore, be given special treatment, a point on which there is universal consensus."

The Pentagon did not comment on the rulings, but has granted access in the past to outside observers, including representatives of the monitoring group Human Rights Watch and the Canadian Foreign Affairs Department. Coomaraswamy's office was still seeking guidance from the UN's legal department about whether to press to attend the hearing when the Pentagon turned down the request Khadr's lawyers had made on the world body's behalf. "We cannot interfere in the proceedings of a national court, but we will continue to raise the (wider) issue with the State Department and suggest that care be taken," said Laurence Gerard, spokeswoman for Coomaraswamy. Barring any successful motions to dismiss, Khadr's trial is expected to begin in May. The son of Ahmed Said Khadr, a former financier for Osama bin Laden who was killed in 2003 during a raid on suspected terrorists in Pakistan, Khadr is accused of throwing a grenade that killed a U.S. army sergeant. He has been detained at Guantanamo since the fall of 2002.

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