Respect for the life and dignity of the detainees

29-10-2010 Overview

Through the Geneva Conventions, the international community has mandated the ICRC to visit both prisoners of war and civilians interned during armed conflict. Wherever possible, the ICRC also visits people detained in other situations of violence. ICRC detention visits aim to ensure that detainees, whatever the reason for their arrest and detention, are treated with dignity and humanity, in accordance with international norms and standards. ICRC delegates work with authorities to prevent abuse and to improve both the treatment of detainees and their conditions of detention.

ICRC detainee-welfare activities have a purely humanitarian aim: to promote detainees’ physical and mental well-being and to ensure that their treatment and conditions of detention meet international humanitarian law and/or other internationally recognized standards. Through regular visits, the ICRC strives to prevent torture, other forms of ill-treatment, forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions, and to ensure that detainees enjoy fundamental judicial guarantees. The ICRC also takes action to improve conditions of detention and to maintain contact between detainees and their relatives.

To promote detainee welfare, the ICRC:

  • negotiates with detaining authorities to obtain access to people deprived of their freedom, wherever they are, and to ensure that the ICRC can follow procedures that guarantee the effectiveness and consistency of its action;
  • visits all detainees in those facilities it visits, assessing their conditions of detention and identifying any shortcomings and humanitarian needs;
  • monitors certain detainees individually (for specific protection, medical or other purposes);
  •  promotes contact between detainees and their families by facilitating family visits or transmitting Red Cross messages;
  • provides detainees with medical and other supplies, either directly or through the detaining authority;
  • seeks solutions to humanitarian problems through confidential dialogue with the detaining authority.

The ICRC conducts its visits to places of detention in accordance with strict conditions:

  • delegates must have full and unimpeded access to all detainees and to all places used by and for detainees;
  • delegates must be able to hold private interviews with the detainees of their choice;
  • delegates must be able to repeat their visits;
  • the detaining authority must notify detainees' names to the ICRC, and the ICRC must be able to draw up lists of detainees independently.

ICRC visits are a means of collecting first-hand information about the detainees’ living conditions, how they are being treated and the detention regime.

Each visit follows a set procedure. Delegates start by meeting the person in charge of the detention facility. This is an opportunity to present the objective of the visit and to discuss both the general situation and the implementation of previous ICRC recommendations.

Together with personnel from the detaining authority, the delegates then visit all areas used by and for detainees, such as cells, barracks, interrogation rooms, kitchens, latrines, exercise yards and infirmaries. This helps them understand how the facility is organized and run.

Private interviews with detainees constitute the cornerstone of the visit. These interviews allow the detainee to speak freely and in confidence about his or her situation, and enable the delegate to identify any humanitarian problems.

During the interview phase, delegates will also register any detainees they consider vulnerable, so they can check on them during follow-up visits. Repeat visits are essential to ensure that such detainees do not disappear.

The ICRC will only pass information collected during private interviews to the detaining authority with the express consent of the detainee.

At the end of the visit, the ICRC discusses with the detaining authority measures to improve conditions of detention and the running of the facility, taking local resources into account.

The ICRC then submits a confidential report to the detaining authority. This report contains both the ICRC’s findings and its recommendations, the recommendations being based on humanitarian principles and applicable law.

To make it possible to discuss sensitive issues frankly and constructively, dialogue between the ICRC and a detaining authority is usually kept confidential. The aim is to achieve progress through this confidential dialogue. On occasion, the ICRC may decide to speak out publicly, but will do so only if confidential dialogue is not producing results and if a public statement is likely to be helpful. The fact that the ICRC rarely goes public about detention issues is a testament to the effectiveness of its confidential approach.


Visiting detainees 

Baku, Azerbaijan. An ICRC delegate visits a special unit that treats prisoners suffering from tuberculosis.
© ICRC / B. Heger / V-P-az-e-00086