Archived page: may contain outdated information!


03-04-1998 Statement

54th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Agenda item 8 - 3 April 1998. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mr Chairman,

In connection with the debate on agenda item 8, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would like to make a few general comments and highlight certain features of its approach to the question of detention.

The last 15 years have seen a considerable expansion in the activities of various organizations, bodies and mechanisms engaged in the task of protecting the rights of persons deprived of their freedom. The capacity to observe and prevent abuses has thus significantly increased. The ICRC has followed this development closely. It has seized every opportunity to stress how important it is that the various initiatives and approaches complement each other. This complementarity concerns the response to needs that have not yet been addressed, or not in an adequate manner, and to the working methods used.  It also relates to the kinds of situations covered and the respective mandates, roles and spheres of competence of the players involved.

Initially, the ICRC's detention activities focused on persons deprived of their freedom during international armed conflicts. For many years the ICRC has been visiting prisoners of war and civilian internees on the basis of the Geneva Conventions, which are the direct source of its mandate and which lay down the conditions and procedures for such visits. The ICRC later extended those activities to include persons detained in connection with internal conflicts.

Adapting its response to the many forms of violence it encounters, over the years the ICRC has conducted operations in situations marked by disturbances, crises and other forms of collective violence occurring within a country. Once the authorities of the country concerned have accepted the ICRC's offer of services, the organization examines the conditions of detention of persons deprived of their freedom as a result of such events, regardless of whether they are considered as security, political or administrative detainees or merely as a threat to the established order. More recently, the ICRC has been dealing with the situation of other categories of detainees who, denied the basic protection they are entitled to expect from the authorities, are considered high-risk groups. In all these circumstances, the people of concern to the ICRC are those who may be subjected to a special regime because of the reasons for their arrest, or to treatment that falls short of the minimum requirements of humanity.

Through its activities to help persons deprived of their freedom, the ICRC makes it a priority to try to prevent or put an end to forced disappearances, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, degrading conditions of detention and loss of family contact. The ICRC takes care not to express an opinion on the grounds for detention.

Regular visits to places of detention are indispensable for the ICRC to gain a comprehensive picture of the situation. The ICRC has laid down four essential conditions to ensure that it can play its role to the full and make an objective analysis:

- it must have access to all detainees within its terms of reference, wherever they may be held;

- it must be allowed to interview the detainees of its choice without witnesses;

- it must be able to record the identity of the detainees;

- it must be allowed to repeat its visits.

Visits to detainees form part of a detailed and confidential dialogue between the ICRC and the relevant authorities. The latter are informe d of the ICRC's findings in written reports, which are also confidential. The purpose of these reports is to give the authorities as accurate an idea as possible of how detainees are treated after arrest. They contain constructive and realistic recommendations.

This effort to persuade the authorities at all levels to assume their responsibilities is one of the main features of the ICRC's approach. Others include insisting on direct access to the persons concerned, long-term involvement, registration of the detainees'identity and monitoring of their situation until they are freed.

Sometimes the ICRC engages in activities aimed at supporting and strengthening the infrastructure, particularly in prisons. In cases of absolute necessity it may also temporarily assume the obligations of the authorities, in areas such as health, food and hygiene, to ensure the survival of detainees.

In this regard, we would like to draw attention to a worrying trend that is also paradoxical given the greater capacity for observation and for the prevention of abuses mentioned earlier. For countless reasons, and whatever the level of development of the societies concerned, the number of detainees is on the rise. The infrastructure rarely keeps pace with this increase. On the contrary, in a growing number of countries material conditions of detention are deteriorating at an alarming rate and are threatening the physical integrity, even the lives, of detainees. The reason for this phenomenon is usually overcrowding in the prisons, often due to the slowness and inefficiency of judicial procedures and the inadequacy of the funds allocated to prison administrations. Some authorities publicly acknowledge that they cannot ensure decent conditions of detention.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, we stress that the ICRC does not claim to protect all the rights of detainees, nor does it have the resources to do so. Its appr oach, aimed primarily at preventing violence, easing tension and creating the conditions for future reconciliation, is deliberately limited. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need to work towards strengthening national capabilities and improving the functioning of State institutions - especially the administration of justice. The international community must also mobilize to speed up progress in this area and establish effective policies of cooperation and development.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

Ref. LG 1998-040-ENG