How does the ICRC work in detention?

Under what conditions will the ICRC visit detainees?

ICRC visits to detainees are essential in order for us to monitor and document their treatment and living conditions.

Before we enter into an agreement with detaining authorities to conduct visits, we need to be sure that they understand and accept our standard operating procedures. Five elements of these operating procedures are non-negotiable:

  • Full and unimpeded access to all places of detention and all detainees covered by the Geneva Conventions or an access agreement.
  • In each of these places, full and unimpeded access to all the premises used by and for detainees.
  • The right to conduct private interviews with detainees selected by ICRC delegates.
  • The right to revisit a place of detention as often as necessary.
  • The assurance that the authorities will provide a comprehensive list of detainees or permit the ICRC to register individual detainees and to compile such a list.

Private interviews with detainees are an essential source of information. We only use information from these interviews in our dialogue with the authorities if we have the express and informed consent of the detainee. As any individual's account is by nature subjective and shaped by their personal experience, their vulnerability and their level of resilience, we analyse this information objectively, supplementing it from other sources and our own observations.


What does an ICRC visit look like?

ICRC visits to detainees take place in four stages:

Initial meeting with the authorities responsible for the detention facility

Delegates introduce the ICRC, explain the objectives and structure of the visit and collect administrative data (e.g. number of detainees, list of detainees and plans of the premises). The authorities have an opportunity to explain how the detention facility functions, discuss the general situation and mention any changes that may have occurred since the last visit.

Tour of the premises

Together with staff from the detention facility, delegates conduct a tour of all areas used by and for detainees, such as the living quarters, cells, kitchens, sanitary facilities, exercise yards, health facilities, rooms where interrogations are carried out, disciplinary cells, registries, visiting rooms, etc. This provides objective, first-hand data on the detention environment and infrastructure and opportunities to meet staff members and gain their views and insights.

Private interviews with detainees

This essential element of the visit enables delegates to speak privately, and for as long as necessary, with detainees they themselves have selected. Private interviews offer a confidential framework for dialogue and listening, establishing a relationship of trust and giving the detainee an opportunity to speak freely about individual or general matters of concern. Detainees are sometimes identified and registered for further individual follow-up at this stage.

Final meeting with the detaining authorities

During the final meeting, the delegates inform the detaining authorities of their observations, propose and discuss recommendations and take note of the officials' responses. The delegates also discuss the progress of any joint projects under way in the detention facility, and consider with the authorities how the ICRC can best follow up on the visit, in the form of written reports, material assistance, training, projects or other types of support.


Who is in the visiting team?

The ICRC team usually consists of one or more delegates who specialize in conducting visits to detainees, accompanied by colleagues such as a doctor or other health professional, an engineer, a nutritionist and/or an interpreter.


What does the ICRC do to improve the situation of detainees?

This will depend on our assessment of the needs, what we learn during repeated visits and our ongoing dialogue with the authorities.

Our response reflects the needs, the causes of any problems, and the willingness and capacity of the detaining authorities to act.

Possible action on our part:

Persuade the authorities to improve conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees, including their access to justice, by engaging in a dialogue based on reports submitted to the authorities in confidence. We may make recommendations designed to promote respect for the inherent dignity of detainees and the cessation of all forms of ill-treatment or abuse.

Take on some elements of the authorities' responsibilities and temporarily provide direct services to detainees.

This may include:

  • donating soap, other hygiene requisites, books, recreational materials, clothes, bedding, food or medication;
  • enabling detainees to stay in touch with their families through the exchange of Red Cross messages (RCMs), videoconference calls, or by facilitating family visits.

Support the authorities as follows:

Provide training and expert advice, or simply bring the right people together around one table to discuss problems, such as overcrowding, to which the solutions lie largely outside the influence of the prison system.

Plan and implement projects jointly with the detaining authorities in areas such as repair and maintenance (of premises, water systems, sanitary and cooking facilities), waste management and fumigation. We can also help prison managers incorporate such services into their regular training, planning and budgeting.

Help the detaining authorities develop operating procedures and conduct staff training that will ensure the safety of detainees and humane treatment for them.

Support the work of ministries and prison service headquarters in updating policies, regulatory frameworks and practices and bringing them into line with internationally recognised standards.

Encourage ministries that share responsibility for the care of detainees, in particular the ministry of health, to reflect the needs of places of detention in their work.

Provide the judiciary with the support needed to ensure fair and timely investigations, judicial supervision and follow up.

The ICRC can encourage other bodies to get involved, with the agreement of the authorities concerned, to provide additional support or resources.

In extreme cases, if dialogue breaks down completely, if the ICRC has exhausted all other options and if we believe it is in the interest of the detainees, we may consider publicly denouncing violations of international law we have witnessed.