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Visits to detained torture victims by the ICRC (I): Management, documentation, and follow-up

01-01-2000 Article, Torture, Volume 10, Number 1, 4-7 p., 2000, by Marina Staiff

This article was published in the journal TORTURE, Volume 10, Number 1, 4-7 p., 2000, and reproduced with the kind authorization of the publisher.

 Marina Staiff, Medical Coordinator for Dentention-related Activities, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)  

What good and what harm can visits to detained torture victims do? This question is deliberately provocative, for it may seem somewhat unreasonable to wonder how visits to prisoners (l) who have been seriously ill-treated and even tortured could themselves do harm if those visits are carried out by an independent organization staffed by well-intentioned individuals following recognized procedures. The purpose of this outline was to show that, for a number of reasons, it is not entirely unjustified to ask this question. Visiting places of detention can be of use in the struggle to eradicate torture. But in some cases it can be at best useless, and even counterproductive, as will be discussed. The procedures used by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) when visiting prisoners have been discussed in a series of previous papers, [1,2,3 ] and therefore they will be mentioned only briefly. Instead we will deal more specifically with those aspects of visits that directly concern the type of relationship that is established between the visiting organization and each individual prisoner who has undergone torture.

The aim was to highlight the importance of following up the case of each individual, of respecting the informed choices made by each prisoner regarding what he (2) is willing to allow the visiting organization to do about his case, and the personal aspect of the relationship between the prisoner and that organization’s representative.

 The ICRC’s mandate to visit prisoners  

The ICRC was set up in 1863 as a result of war and a growing awareness of its effects on the individual. The ICRC traditionally acts to protect and assist victims: of armed conflict, international or otherwise, by virtue of the mandate conferred upon it by the community of States. At present, the ICRC is active in more than 50 countries. It is independent of all governments, and its actions and decisions are guided exclusively by humanitarian considerations.

The role of the ICRC is twofold. As guardian and promoter of international humanitarian law, it approaches governments or armed opposition groups in order to bring about full compliance with that law. As. a humanitarian organization, it strives to protect and assist people affected by armed conflict or internal strife, such as individuals imprisoned in connection with those events, displaced persons, civilians who have been the victims of violations of the law, the wounded, and people separated from their loved ones by fighting.

Work on behalf of prisoners is one of the ICRC’s moat specific tasks. In accordance with its mandate, the organization concerns itself with the welfare of any person arrested in connection with an armed conflict, internal strife, or other disturbances requiring action by s specifically neutral and independent organization.

The main purpose of the ICRC’s work in this domain is to safeguard the prisoners’ physical and mental integrity, to prevent or put an end to any ill-treatment, and to ensure acceptable material conditions of detention (3). The ICRC assesses the situation and asks the authorities to take any steps needed to improve the detainees'treatment and material conditions. In urgent cases, the ICRC itself supplies material relief.

In order to bring about improvements, the ICRC must be in a position to approach not only the political authoriti es but also the entire chain of command of the security/defence forces. This is necessary if the organization’s conclusions are to be based on reliable information and on as objective an analysts as possible of the problems.

The ICRC reports its findings to the detainee authorities and not to the judiciary or any other investigative body. It does not publish those findings (or, rather, it publishes them only in very exceptional circumstances), Bound by its principle of confidentiality, the ICRC engages in dialogue with the detaining authorities. It thus plays a role complementary to that of other organizations whose essential tool is public advocacy. By virtue of the fact that they accept both the ICRC's presence in places of detention and the organization's working methods, the detaining authorities consent to the discussion of sensitive subjects such as torture, and agree to deal with them. In the ensuing dialogue, the ICRC becomes the voice of prisoners who are the victims of ill-treatment. Should the authorities fail to abide by the agreed working procedures once the visits have snorted, the ICRC will consider suspending its activities until an acceptable arrangement has been worked out. Finally, if all other courses of action have been exhausted, the ICRC may in the end decide to inform the international community of its decision to suspend the visits and the reasons why it has been forced to do so.

 Procedures for visits to prisoners  

Visits to prisoners by independent entities (whether national or international) represent an important means of detecting and limiting torture – and play a major role in the struggle to eradicate the practice – provided that those visits are carried out in accordance with certain procedures and join together with other mechanisms aimed at preventing torture. The latter range from legal and administrative safeguards to the training of health-care professionals. It goes without saying that visits in themselves could never be enough to counter torture electively.

It is certainly most encouraging that independent monitoring mechanisms are being set up in an increasing number of countries, with the result that periodical visits are made to places of detention in order to ascertain the conditions and treatment of the prisoners held there and to make recommendations, when needed, far their improvement.

Nevertheless, taking the risk of stating the obvious, I would like to stress that visiting is not an end in itself but a means to an end, a tool And to be effective, that tool must be adapted to the context and the specific work it is intended to perform.

For instance, the impact of independent visits to police stations in different countries has been the object of a recent study', which shows that the manner in which the visiting schemes are developed and their ultimate effect are closely linked to the political, legal, and historical context in which they arise.

The prisoner’s needs are determined by the specific reality in a given country’s places of detention – with all the factors influencing it. Those needs must determine the objectives of a visiting scheme and the action it will take and methods it will adopt to meet those objectives. The visiting procedures negotiated with the authorities must allow the pursuit of objectives dictated by the situation. If this is not the case, the visits achieve nothing they are at best useless and perhaps even harmful.

For instance, after considering the problems observed, their causes and degree of seriousness, the ICRC may feel that it is sufficient to visit a place of detention once a year. By contrast, it may decide that it is necessary to visit another place every second day of the week – week after week and month after month – in order to maintain the necessary dialogue with the authorities in charge and to bring about an improvement.

It can be difficult to carry out visits to prisoners in a professional, objective manner, especially where torture is routinely practised. Inexperienced visitors – no matter how well-meaning – may get a false picture of reality and may inadvertently put prisoners in danger. To reduce the risk, a number of procedural safeguards must be established before every visit.

When the main problem is torture or the risk of torture, the ICRC considers that it is essential to do the following:

  • gain access to the prisoners concerned;

  • ensure that ICRC representatives are able to talk with the prisoner freely, in private and in a place chosen by the ICRC delegate;

  • record the identity of the prisoners concerned;

  • ensure that the ICRC can repeat the visit whenever it deems necessary.

Exceptions may be made to these procedures only under extraordinary circumstances, and only if they serve the interests of the prisoners, and the prisoners alone.

The above-mentioned procedures are intended to achieve two things: first, to give each prisoner a chance to speak freely and in confidence, and, second, to ensure that each case is followed up individually.

This last point is a particularly important requirement when there is the fear that reprisals may be taken against detainees who give private interviews to the ICRC delegates. Prisoners may have been coached by the detaining authorities before the visit and threatened with punishment if anyone complains to the ICRC. If prisoners fear reprisals if they make themselves conspicuous by requesting to see an ICRC representative in private, whet her or not this fear is justified, the ICRC proceeds very cautiously. In some cases it may decide to suspend the visit. In others it may decide to interview privately each and every prisoner in the place as a means of preventing the detaining authorities from singling out any particular person.

In any case, systematic follow-up is imperative to ensure the prisoners’ safety after the visit.

 Individual follow-up of prisoners  

The ICRC makes it a working rule that the identity must be recorded in detail of prisoners who represent problem cases (real or potential) needing to be followed with particular care (victims of torture, other ill-treatment, or discrimination; those presenting medical problems; and, naturally, those for whom there is the perceived risk of reprisals, disappearance, or extrajudicial execution). In some cases, the ICRC also registers missing persons and persons presumed imprisoned. Such information is centralized to allow optimal follow-up.

For the ICRC the registration of prisoners is a working tool that enables it to follow individual cases as closely as necessary (4). The fact that a prisoner is registered by the ICRC does not confer on him any special privilege, and has no legal value per se.  


When visiting a given place of detention, it is not always necessary to record the prisoners’ identities However, when torture is not an isolated occurrence but a routine practice, registration and individual follow-up of prisoner is indispensable. Naturally, the more violent the situation in a country, the higher the risk of ill-treatment, and the greater probable need for close individual follow-up. As pointed out above, in such situations it can be dangerous to visi t without adequate follow-up to ensure that nothing serious happens to prisoners once the visit is completed. An ongoing presence in the field (and the appropriate facilities to this end) thus appears necessary in such sensitive situations.

But registering a tortured prisoner can also be seen as something more than a working tool and a safeguard for his security, since one purpose of torture is always to destroy the victim's sense of being a member of a family or a group, or simply of society in his or her capacity as a human being. And this purpose is often achieved: victims frequently report a sense of having been dehumanized and thus cut off from human society [5 ] . It should be added that when the individual is one of a group of other prisoners, his sense of belonging seems to be better preserved than, for example, that of someone living in exile. But that sense of belonging most assuredly fades when individuals are kept isolated from one another for long periods. Registering prisoners on the first visit is a way of saying to them: “As of now, you are one of the people on our list. We will keep track of you as long as you are in prison. " This is important not only as a means of reassuring the prisoner, who may fear that his fate will be to “disappear”, but also as a means of giving him a sense of belonging (to the group of persons being kept track of by the ICRC), which can function as a temporary reference when his usual web of relationships has weakened.

In some situations, being registered by the ICRC, and for the first time seeing one’s representative go in for a private interview, is experienced by the prisoner as a sort of rite: symbolic recognition that he is in a special situation.

 The interview with the prisoner  

Private interviews with the prisoners by ICRC delegates and doctors are the essential part of a visit, and take up the greatest part of it. The interview makes it possible to document cases of torture, and to hear the prisoner’s point of view on any other specific problem. But useful and reliable information can be collected only when a relationship of trust has been built up. This is especially true when a person has been subjected to violence, arrest, interrogation, isolation, renewed interrogation, and the many other phases of. imprisonment. Such a relationship can be difficult to achieve. It may require time end patience; it may require several different meetings. In the ICRC’s experience, it is easier to cement this relationship when the prisoners know and understand precisely the organization’s mandate, its working procedures, and the limits to what it can do.

Not only must these things be crystal dear in the prisoner’s mind as regards the ICRC as an organization; there must also be absolute transparency in the personal relationship between the prisoner and the ICRC delegate. That is, the delegate must take care to ensure that what he says is perfectly intelligible, honest, unambiguous, and unequivocal. Apart from anything else, this is a fundamental means of setting the delegate apart from the torturer, who always makes lavish use of language designed to create confusion in the victim’s mind.

ln some situations it is possible that, far from mistrust, the prisoner may place exaggerated hope in a representative of a national or international body that may be viewed as possessing powers that in reality it does not have; the prisoner may feel that the organization will now protect him in all circumstances. If this happens, the prisoner may then take ill-considered risks by, for example, speaking freely not only within the framework of the private interview but also outside that framework. For this reason it is essential to ensue that the prisoners understand the limits of the protection that can be provided, and to take all possible precautions against the prisoners unnecessarily exposing themselves to danger.

The prisoners’ confidence also depend on the absolute certainty that no information – no allegation, no complaint – provided by them in the course of an interview will be reported to the authorities without their express permission.

In short, collecting reliable information, ensuring that the interviewer’s approach is clear and unequivocal, and working to secure a humane, empathic relationship are three closely interlinked objectives. Neglecting one can only jeopardize the others, and can have serious consequences. This may sound self-evident, but the reality is that representatives of humanitarian or human rights organizations who visit prisons are all too often so concerned with the actual collection of information and evidence that they neglect this crucial aspect of the process.

 Documenting torture  

The ICRC’s philosophy and practice regarding the documenting of torture have been described elsewhere[6 ] and have been largely incorporated in the United Nations Manual, currently being published, on the effective documentation of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (also known as the “Protocol of Istanbul”). [7 ]

The prisoner’s account is indispensable to the documentation of torture. Torture survivors may have difficulty in recounting the specific details of their ordeal for several reasons, which range from cultural taboos through shame through various psychological defence mechanisms, through impaired memory, and on to fear and distrust. Such difficulties may in themselves be a sign of the severity of what the person has endured.(5)

The significance of torture for each individual (in cultural, social, and political terms) influences his ability to speak about it, just as it helps to determine the impa ct torture will have psychologically and socially.

Because of these possible differences in significance, and because of the severity of torture and its consequences, one should therefore, when collecting information, adapt an attitude of informed be receptive inquiry (or even learning), rather than be in a great hurry to diagnose, classify, and quantify. No preconceived standards can ever anticipate the entire range of possible forms of ill-treatment and their global effect.

To yield to the temptation of thinking of torture in a preconceived manner, and thus to confine it to pre-established categories, would be counter-productive (6), both in terms of collecting information and in making representations to the responsible authorities. Experience shows that when you reduce the victims'experience of torture to a catalogue of methods used, it tends in turn to reduce the dialogue to a discussion of this method as opposed to that method, rather than addressing the problem of torture as such.

Phenomenological or descriptive methods are thus probably the most appropriate approaches to torture. Among other things, these approaches guard against statements being made without a firm basis in the form of numerous and consistent accounts, i.e. the conviction that the statement reflects reality as faithfully as possible.

In the ICRC’s experience, only by carefully listening to all the views expressed, taking into account their subjectivity, and then weighing them in the light of the overall cultural and social context can the interviewer obtain some idea of the nature and gravity of the ill-treatment to which prisoners have been subjected.

By a process of analysing and cross-checking hundreds of torture allegations in a given situation, the ICRC obtains a picture of that situation that is as detailed and close to reality as possible, and thereby manages to identify the p atterns according to which the system functions (or rather malfunctions), and on which the practice of torture is based. This process also makes dear the levels at which representations should most urgently be made.

Obviously, the medical and psychological consequences of torture need to be assessed by trained doctors, psychiatrists, and psychologists, because the assessment must be authoritative in the eyes of those to whom it is addressed. In addition, while documenting medical evidence of torture, ICRC doctors are in a position to provide independent medical advice to prisoners. If necessary, medical consultation, treatment, or referral will then be requested for a prisoner by the ICRC.

It is essential that those who interview the detainees – whether or not they are health-care professionals – familiarize themselves as far as possible not only with the cultural, social, and political milieu, but also with the objectives pursued by the torturers, the methods they use, their consequences, and the coping mechanisms most frequently used by those on whom the practice is inflicted. This is necessary not only to understanding what the detainee tells you but also to showing him that you understand.


Visiting detainees who have been subjected to torture is a means of documenting the torture, in order then to make representations to the responsible authorities (with evidence that makes clear what was done, but without indicating to which individual it was done, or with evidence citing individual accounts) in order to make it stop.

ICRC experience also shows that regular and thorough visits to a place of detention can have a direct impact on the treatment of those held there, provided that open dialogue can be maintained with the authorities in charge .

Finally, I would like to ask the following question. When a national or international agency carries out visits to prisoners in situations in which torture is systematically used, how can one be sure that those visits will not prove counterproductive, nor actually expose the prisoners to grater risks?

Though it is very difficult ever to be absolutely certain that the risk is nil, there are a number of measures that can – and must – be taken in connection with such visits. I would summarize those measures as follows:

  • substantial knowledge of the manner in which the institutions being dealt with function, as well as of the cultural, social, historical and political reality;

  • a number of working procedures to which the responsible authorities must give clear consent, and which should make it possible to pursue the objectives dictated by the situation (one such procedure being to keep track of each individual prisoner);

  • when conducting a private interview with a prisoner, one should remember that collecting reliable information, ensuring that the interviewer’s approach is clear and unequivocal, and working to secure a humane, empathic relationship are three closely interlinked objectives. For such an interview to have a beneficial effect for the prisoner, it is essential to be familiar with torture’s objectives, methods, and consequences, as well as with the coping mechanisms most frequently used by the victims;

  • as an ethical principle, the needs of the prisoners and respect for the informed choices they make must take precedence over all other considerations.


1. International Committee o f the Red Cross. ICRC action on behalf of prisoners. lnternational Committee of the Red Cross, 1997

2. Reyes H. ICRC visits to prisoners. Torture 1993;3:2.

3. Daudin P, Reyes H. How visits by the ICRC can help prisoners cope with the effects of traumatic stress. In: International responses to traumatic stress. New York Baywood Publishers, 1996.

4. Association for the Prevention of Torture. The impact of external visiting of police stations on prevention of torture and ill-treatment. Geneva: Association for the Prevention of Torture, 1999.

5. Sironi F. Bourreaux et victimes – Psychologie de la torture. Paris: Odile Jacob, 1999.

6. Reyes H. Torture and its consequences. Torture 1995; 5: 4.

7. UN Manual on the effective documentation of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, 1999.

8. Benasayag M. Utopie et lilerté. Paris: Editions La Découverte, 1986.



(1) The term prisoner here is to be taken as anyone held in the custody of an official, or even unofficial, authority, and includes detainees, those under arrest, remand prisoners, etc.

(2) The masculine gender will be used exclusively to lighten the text.

(3) It should be emphasized that it is the responsibility of the detaining authorities to ensure the well-being of those whom they take into custody, and that the authorities can be held accountable should they fail to do so.

(4) lt should be remembered that the most basic means of protecting persons deprived of their freedom is – and will remain –

their immediate and official regist ration by those who arrest them.

(5) Many torture survivors have pointed out that describing torture that you have suffered at the hands of other human beings is a virtually impossible task. Victims find it so difficult to convey th'eir experiences for the simple reason that there are no words to describe the indescribable. [8 ]

(6) Especially as it is practised in the most varied cultural settings



a) The above text is a slightly revised version of a paper originally presented at the VIII International. Symposium on Torture, New Delhi. The second part of this presentation will be published in TORTURE 2/2000 with the title “ Visits to detained torture victims by the ICRC (II): the psychological impact of visits and interviews with detained torture victims”.  

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