Helping detainees: Protecting and assisting people deprived of their liberty

Every person deprived of liberty deserves to be treated with dignity and fairness, regardless of the reason for their arrest and detention.

An ICRC employee speaking with detainees at the San Salvador, Cojutepeque Penal Centre.

Ensuring respect for the life and dignity of those deprived of their liberty

Every day, in conflict situations around the world, men, women and children are detained and deprived of their liberty. They may be at risk of ill-treatment, forced disappearance and summary execution. They may also lose contact with their families and be subjected to inhumane living conditions, limited access to food and water, or poor health-care services. Although the circumstances of their capture and detention may differ, the humanitarian needs of detainees are universal. Because of our status as a neutral and impartial humanitarian organization with a unique mandate granted by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, we at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) are able to access detainees in places where others are not. This allows us to work to ensure that their basic needs are met and that they are treated humanely, with respect and dignity.

Our work on behalf of detainees and people deprived of their liberty

Our work is based on a comprehensive assessment of the situation both inside and outside the detention facility. This is possible through constructive bilateral and confidential dialogue with the detaining authorities and private discussions with detainees. We engage on detention matters with state and non-state authorities, including non-state armed groups holding detainees. We work in the role of a neutral intermediary upon the request of the authorities or by proposing our services to parties to a conflict. On several occasions, we have been involved in major prisoner transfers and release operations, always taking a neutral and independent humanitarian approach.

Preventing violations of detainees’ rights

Action against torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment is a key focus of our work for people deprived of their liberty. The ultimate aim of our work is to act on behalf of the victims of such treatment and to reduce their suffering.

Engaging in dialogue with authorities

We speak with authorities and other relevant actors to remind them of their obligations regarding the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, and also to support them in establishing or strengthening a national or local environment conducive to the prevention of such practices.

Read more about our policy on torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment inflicted on persons deprived of their liberty.

Improving conditions of detention and strengthening prison systems

Our interdisciplinary teams – comprising health, sanitation, nutrition, legal and prison management experts – work alongside authorities to ensure decent and humane conditions of detention. Our approach is two-fold. Our confidential dialogue with detaining authorities allows us to raise issues of concern identified during monitoring visits and to identify practical solutions. In parallel, we work on the strengthening of the prison system through advocacy at local and central levels, aiming to ensure full respect for local and international standards. Our activities also include a strong capacity-building component, with training and support for prison staff.

Restoring family links

If detainees lose contact with their families, our visiting team can help put them back in touch and deliver news about their loved ones. 

Helping people deprived of liberty to return home

We work as a neutral intermediary between conflicting parties to facilitate the release or exchange of prisoners of war, detainees and hostages, allowing them to return to their families. We may also work to help former persons deprived of liberty to return to their homes and loved ones once they have been released.

Working confidentially: Our preferred mode of action

Dialogue is an essential element of the ICRC’s work on behalf of people deprived of liberty: with detainees, detaining authorities, and others.  Such dialogue must be based on trust, which is strengthened by the fact that it takes place in confidence. Confidential dialogue is the ICRC’s preferred method of working and a strategic choice, but it is not an end in itself. Usually, dialogue that takes place in confidence facilitates access to detainees; it also enables the ICRC to understand and appreciate their needs and work with authorities to effect sustainable change in relation to the treatment and conditions of people deprived of liberty.