Improving the lives of detainees in Iraq

03-03-2014 Interview

In this film, we follow ICRC staff as they visit Suleymanieh Central Prison in Northern Iraq and explain the nature of their work. The ICRC has been working in places of detention in Iraq since 1980. In 2013, it visited nearly 40,000 people in 74 places of detention to monitor their treatment and living conditions. ICRC delegates visiting prisons in Iraq work closely with the authorities to improve life for detainees, from ensuring judicial guarantees are respected to reconnecting detainees with their family on the outside.


Below, Patrick Youssef, head of the ICRC's delegation in Iraq, explains more about the purpose of these visits:

Iraq: Focusing on the individual detainee as a human being 


Why does the ICRC visit detainees in Iraq?

The main idea behind ICRC visits is to ensure that all detainees are treated with dignity and humanity. The first step towards achieving this aim is to make sure that the treatment of detainees and the conditions in which they are held comply with Iraqi law and meet international standards. The Iraqi authorities are made aware of any shortcomings and encouraged to do what is necessary to remedy them.

The ICRC can help the authorities fulfil their responsibility to meet the required standards. This responsibility goes beyond making sure the detainees have suitable shelter and proper nutrition, as detainees must also have access to medical care, contact with their families, and assurances that their right to a fair trial will be upheld. In addition, their detention must be subject to judicial supervision. It can be especially difficult to satisfy these requirements in situations that are unstable or transitional.

Who are the people visited by the ICRC? The ICRC is often accused of focusing on terrorists or other criminals.

The ICRC goes about its detention-related work the same way it does all its other activities. It begins with an impartial assessment of humanitarian need. During its visits, the ICRC treats every detainee equally, on the basis of absolute neutrality and impartiality, independently of any political consideration, and making no distinctions based on ideology, religion or ethnicity.

The ultimate focus of our detainee-welfare activities is on the individual detainee as a human being. We take no account of the reasons for arrest or eventual sentencing. ICRC visits do not confer any special legal status on detainees, and they do not take place with the aim of seeking anyone's release, except, in very rare instances, on humanitarian grounds. The ICRC has been providing assistance for victims of conflict and other violence in Iraq for the past 32 years, and it will continue to do so.

Where does the ICRC visit detainees?

ICRC delegates are currently conducting regular visits throughout the country in more than a hundred different places of detention under the authority of the federal government or the Kurdish regional government. Most of the places we currently visit in Iraq are prisons, where detainees serve out their sentences or await trial, or interrogation centres, where detainees are sent after arrest while the merits of the charges against them are being determined. The different kinds of issues that arise in these two types of places are reflected in the confidential discussions the ICRC has one-on-one with the authorities concerned. The ICRC’s ability to make repeated visits is a significant asset. The ICRC relies on the authorities for access and is always ready to extend its visits as needed.

How do these visits work?

The ICRC uses a standard visiting method throughout the world. It starts with a meeting with the director of the place of detention, and sometimes with members of his staff, to discuss the purpose of the visit and the current situation from the authorities’ perspective. The discussion covers administrative details such as the number of detainees but also any other issues the authorities would like to draw the ICRC’s attention to. As Iraq is very volatile, it often happens that changes in the overall situation in the country are reflected in places of detention. That's why it remains essential to have these meetings with the director: they provide an opportunity to take stock of such changes.

Each such meeting is followed by a tour of the premises which of course includes the cells, but also other areas such as the kitchen and the infirmary, if there is one. The tour is followed by a more in-depth assessment of the cells themselves, and by meetings with detainees, either in groups or individually. To the extent feasible, these interviews take place in private, in order to put the detainees at ease, but also in order to be able to cross-check of any allegations that may be made. The visits end with a further meeting with the authorities, in which the ICRC discusses its findings directly and confidentially. 

The idea is to ensure that the assessment is as thorough and impartial as possible. An important part of our detainee-welfare activities consists in making sure that the authorities understand our procedures and that they allow our visits to take place in accordance with them.

Why has there been no reaction by the ICRC to media reports about conditions in Iraqi prisons?

In the best interest of the detainees, the ICRC maintains a constructive dialogue with the authorities concerned and shares its findings with them alone, in strict confidentiality. If we were to make public any concerns we might have, the effect in terms of our access to people we are striving to help could be negative. The ICRC uses public statements only as a last resort, when every other possible way of achieving its aims has failed. There could be no trust between us and the authorities if we were to make public statements about what we saw or heard on each visit to a place of detention. It is because of this trust that we are allowed to carry out regular visits in accordance with our customary working procedures.

The ICRC does not engage in dialogue only with those directly in charge of places of detention or other detaining authorities; it also holds regular talks with many others who have it within their power to improve a situation, such as members of the judiciary, security force commanders, etc.

What do you consider to be the most significant positive impact that ICRC visits have had in Iraq?

It's difficult to single out any one thing, because detention-related activities yield results only gradually, on the basis of many small changes. Our experience, not only in Iraq but in other countries too, has been that transparent exchanges over a long period of time on detention-related issues are the most effective way to achieve positive results. The results may take the form of direct action to meet one detainee's specific needs, new rules issued by the authorities, changes in the behaviour of prison staff, or even improvements in the lives of the families of detainees or of others beyond a prison fence. Ultimately, positive changes such as these come about through greater respect on the part of the authorities for their obligations towards people behind bars.

We're aware of course that it can be frustrating when there are no immediately visible results. Believe me, it's frustrating not only for detainees or their families but also for our delegates