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Prisoners and visitors

by Jean-François Berger

In the last few months, there has been extensive media coverage of the situation of prisoners in Iraq, notably following the publication of photos of detainees tortured in the Abu Ghraib prison and the leaking of a confidential ICRC report published in the Wall Street Journal on 7 May. These revelations have prompted many questions and commentaries in the press and among the general public, making this a good opportunity to recall some of the fundamentals of the ICRC's work on behalf of prisoners.

TB section in a prison in Baku, Azerbaijan ©Fred Clarke / ICRC

In every armed conflict or situation of internal violence, prisoners are in a position of extreme vulnerability, being as they are commonly considered as enemies by their captors and are therefore at the mercy of acts of vengeance. That is why it is of the utmost importance that prisoners can benefit from the services of a neutral and independent organization whose mission it is to ensure that they are treated humanely, held in decent conditions and given the opportunity to exchange news with their families. This is precisely the mission of the ICRC, which has been visiting detainees in situations of armed conflict or internal violence since 1915.

The ritual of a visit

What, in fact, does an ICRC prison visit really consist of? Each visit to a place of detention is generally carried out by a team of specialized delegates, including medical staff and interpreters. Once inside, the team follows a set of standard procedures: an initial discussion with the detaining authority; registration of prisoners; a tour of all prisoner accommodation and facilities (kitchen, sanitary installations, infirmary, cells, etc.); private talks with each prisoner individually or in groups in order to obtain a more detailed picture of their treatment and conditions of detention; collection and distribution of messages between prisoners and their relatives; and ending with a formal talk with the detaining authority.

Once the ICRC has established a first contact with a detainee, a crucial hurdle has been overcome and the real work begins. It is painstaking work, built on listening, observation and group dynamics. For, each finding is a potential stumbling block that must be documented and carefully reviewed before being submitted to the detaining authority, mostly accompanied by a practical recommendation.

Access to water, food, available space and medical care are the essential points to which every visiting delegate must pay particular attention. Moreover, and this is where it becomes especially sensitive, detainees' treatment must be closely analysed. This requires examining the disciplinary regime and interrogation practices in place so as to detect, if need be, abuses, dubious practices and possible ill treatment.

The prison environment has its own codes and rituals which cannot be deciphered at a glance. It takes time to understand a given situation and capture the underlying problems. During a visit, the delegate must maintain a constant vigilance and curiosity without falling prey to complacency regarding the slightest thing, be it to do with a prisoner, a guard, a colleague or his- or herself. A delicate exercise in itself, a visit is part of a continuous process requiring the follow-up of any problems and individual cases. It involves in particular checking from one visit to the next if a practical measure proposed earlier, whether it concerns conditions of detention, treatment or an individual case, has been implemented. This is why it is up to the ICRC, and not to the detaining authorities, to decide on the duration and frequency of visits and the manner in which they are conducted.

©Thierry Gassmann / ICRC


Dialogue for change

After the visit, the ICRC team produces a summary report on the conditions of detention and treatment of detainees and, if necessary, proposes corrective measures. This report is strictly confidential. Indeed, practice and experience accumulated throughout the world have demonstrated the necessity of handling problems of detention directly with the authorities concerned through a discreet dialogue away from the media spotlight and public debate. On this point, it is worth noting that the ICRC's confidentiality is not an end in itself but a fundamental tool crucial to developing a meaningful working relationship and dialogue with the detaining authorities, as well as develop trust with both the prisoners and the authorities. Incidentally, the ICRC reserves the right at any time to break with its policy of discretion and to make its concerns public if violations are repeated and if its confidential approaches to the authorities have no effect.

Even if in the eyes of some, the confidential approach is ineffectual and smacks of complicity by the ICRC with the detaining authority, it must be said that the delegates' presence in proximity to prisoners within the prison walls acts as a precious safeguard.

Admittedly, the ICRC does not presume to believe that all the problems linked to detention can be solved by a visit, thorough and efficient though it may be. A lot depends on the will of the authorities to take corrective measures, be it local or at a higher level. It can also happen that an ICRC team needs time to gain the confidence of prisoners or that they do not immediately appreciate the importance of a new piece of information. Even so, the recollections of detainees and the ICRC's archives are overflowing with examples of progress and improvements made as a result of this behind-the-scenes and pragmatic approach. For what is at stake here is a link between the prisoner and the outside world, a lifeline that can mean hope and survival.

Souha Bechara, a former Lebanese detainee who was imprisoned for ten years in southern Lebanon, stated in an article published by Associated Press on 11 May 2004 that she had spent six years in solitary confinement before the ICRC had access to the camp where she was held: "In our cells we didn't have water, we didn't have toilets. There was no contact with family members. That changed when the ICRC came in. Most important, the Red Cross re-established contact between the women and their families after years."

Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine.


Legal bases

Visits to prisoners of war captured during an international conflict are codified in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, to which 191 States are party to date.

In addition, Article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions provides for ICRC visits to persons detained in connection with non-international conflicts and civil wars. In conformity with the Statues of the Movement, the ICRC endeavours to gain access to persons detained because of internal troubles or violence.

In 2003, the ICRC visited nearly 470,000 persons detained in 73 countries.


The confidentiality factor

Red Cross Red Crescent asked Dr Hugo Slim, chief scholar at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva and international adviser to the British Red Cross, for his views on the ICRC's policy of confidentiality with respect to its visits to prisoners.

- Is the ICRC right to be worried by the leaking of its confidential report to the press?

I think they are right to the extent it is an unfortunate breach of current international protocol. They feel they have been the victims of bad faith in some way because they always make it clear that the reports they produce are kept confidential by mutual consent. So if a government wants to publish it, it needs the ICRC's consent.

- Why is it so important that the reports be kept confidential?

Over many years the ICRC has developed a very distinct kind of humanitarian policy which is a trade-off of confidentiality for access. So there are really no other international organizations which can get the kind of access to prisons all over the world on this basis. I think this is very valuable not only for the international community but mostly for the prisoners they visit.

- Do you believe the leak of the report can compromise the ICRC's work?

Not really. Rather, it might increase the ICRC's credibility in the long run.

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