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.
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 is ICRC editor of Red Cross Red
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
In 2003, the ICRC visited nearly 470,000 persons detained
in 73 countries.
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
- 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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