GENEVA, Switzerland, Jan. 16 (UPI) -- Taliban and al Qaida fighters held at a U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are prisoners of war who should be repatriated once armed hostilities end unless they face criminal charges, a U.N.'s human-rights official said Wednesday.
"The overwhelming view of legal opinion is that they were combatants in an international armed conflict and their status is defined and protected by the Geneva Conventions of 1949," said Mary Robinson, U.N. high commissioner for human rights. "They are prisoners of war."
Asked about reports of an estimated 50 prisoners being drugged while transported and kept in outside cages, Robinson told reporters, "We are very concerned and are seeking to ascertain more information."
Former combatants are being temporarily held in outdoor cells with concrete floors and wooden ceilings surrounded by a chain-link fence. A more permanent facility is being built for them at the U.S. base.
But a high-level U.S. official told United Press International Robinson "has not sent any letter to the U.S. mission to the United Nations (in Geneva ) on this subject."
Robinson's blunt words question the Bush administration's compliance with global humanitarian norms in the way it decides to hold Taliban and al Qaida fighters.
Robinson and Washington "have their differences," said senior Western and U.N. diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It's important to follow human rights and international humanitarian standards in times of difficulty, Robinson said.
"I've been concerned at a sense in some respects that people are feeling: Are the rules changing?" Robinson said. "Part of my concern is to see that the rules are not changing. The rules are more important than ever."
Being "prisoners of war" does not prevent the United States from prosecuting the men if they suspect them of war crimes or of being involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Robinson said.
Prisoners also have a right to talk to the Red Cross, she said.