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Sri Lanka: a systemic approach to tackling recurrent problems in prisons

15-05-2012 Feature

Making confidential visits to people detained in connection with armed conflict or other situations of violence, with the purpose of assessing their conditions of detention, is an integral part of the ICRC’s work. The ICRC is currently performing this humanitarian work in over 70 different countries around the world.

In Sri Lanka, the ICRC visits places of detention to monitor people deprived of their liberty as a result of the past conflict. The aim of these visits, which have been carried out since 1990 with the agreement of the authorities, is to ensure that the detainees' treatment and material conditions, whatever the reason for their arrest and detention, comply with internationally recognized norms and humanitarian standards.

The ICRC works with the authorities to promote these legal norms and standards and thereby ensure that they are adequately applied to the treatment of individual detainees in places of detention. The ICRC’s observations and recommendations following visits to places of detention and their discussions with individual detainees are shared in a constructive spirit with the relevant authorities with a view to improving the treatment afforded to detainees. These discussions, which are confidential and bilateral in nature, provide an opportunity for the ICRC to share its expertise and knowledge with the authorities and to offer support, whenever appropriate. Apart from these visits, the ICRC also focuses on recurrent problems in prisons that affect detainees' treatment and conditions more generally.

The fact that these recurrent problems are encountered in prisons worldwide would tend to indicate that they might be due to common challenges arising in criminal justice systems and that a systemic, multi-disciplinary approach is required to tackle them.

In Sri Lanka, the national authorities concerned acknowledge that overcrowding is a problem. It has been repeatedly highlighted in the media as one of the most pressing recurrent issues facing Sri Lankan prisons today. It raises significant humanitarian concerns for authorities and inmates alike.

In the Sri Lankan prison system, the multiple factors contributing to overcrowding and the serious consequences thereof, which are well known to both the prison authorities and those involved in the criminal justice system, affect the various Sri Lankan authorities in question in different ways. With nearly 22 years of experience working with the Sri Lankan prison system, the ICRC has offered its services to work with the authorities to explore ways in which it can help tackle prison overcrowding in Sri Lanka through a systemic and multi-disciplinary response to both the causes and consequences of this issue.

Any person deprived of his or her liberty is entitled to benefit from the legal safeguards that apply throughout the criminal justice process, including those that are specific to the pre-trial and trial phase.

What is less obvious is the causal link between ensuring compliance with those legal procedures and tackling the problem of overcrowding in prisons. Proper application of legal procedures – thus making sure that justice is properly administered – can bring down the rate of admissions to prisons and reduce the length of detainees' prison sentences, which in turn helps to reduce overcrowding.

With its international expertise in similar situations, and the specific knowledge it has gathered over years of visits to prisons in Sri Lanka – meeting detainees in private and maintaining a confidential bilateral dialogue with the relevant authorities, particularly about the legal issues mentioned above – the ICRC is ready and willing to contribute to the ongoing efforts of the Sri Lankan authorities to adopt a systemic approach in order to tackle this matter of humanitarian concern.


Akkaraipattu, prison. ICRC delegates visits a detainee. 

Akkaraipattu, prison. ICRC delegates visit a detainee.
© ICRC / T. Gassmann / v-p-lk-n-00042-03