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Democratic Republic of the Congo: visiting conflict-related detainees

31-08-2012 Interview

Since fighting first broke out in North and South Kivu between government forces and the March 23 Movement (M23), the ICRC has been visiting detainees in the area and throughout the country. An ICRC team recently visited members of the armed forces being held by the M23 in Rutshuru province. Sandrine Ducrest, who coordinates this work, explains more in this interview.

Was this the first time you have visited people being held by the M23?

Yes, this was the first time. During armed conflicts, the ICRC's priority is to visit all detainees captured by the parties to the conflict. Given the prevailing circumstances in North Kivu, it is very important that we have access to people detained in connection with the conflict. The purpose of our visits is humanitarian – to check the detainees' treatment and conditions.

What was the purpose of this visit?

The primary purpose is to check that the detainees are treated humanely. Our aim is also to make sure that, despite being imprisoned, detainees' basic needs are met, particularly in terms of access to water, food and health care. During this recent visit to detainees held by M23, we were able to draw up a list of the names of the captured soldiers, to make an initial assessment of their situation, and to deliver supplies to meet their basic needs. We are working on arranging a follow-up visit.

How do you go about conducting these visits?

To ensure that detainees feel able to speak freely, ICRC delegates speak to them in private. ICRC staff also look round the detention facility and share their observations and recommendations with those in charge as part of a bilateral and confidential dialogue in an effort to bring about improvements. They also give detainees the opportunity to contact their families through Red Cross messages (short letters containing family news). We know that one visit is not enough to bring about all the improvements needed, which is why one of the key conditions of our visits is to be able to make another visit to the facility and the people held there. In this case, we have not yet been able to talk to the detainees in private and give them the chance to write Red Cross messages.

Why is it important to speak to the detainees in private?

As in all our activities, listening to people is central to this work. For detainees, it is often crucial to be able to speak to an ICRC delegate in private. This gives them the opportunity to share their concerns, to speak freely about what they need and how they are treated, and to write a message to their families. During our next visit, we are confident that the detainees will be able to reassure their families about their fate.

Why does the ICRC not make its findings public?

The main aim of our approach is to have access at all times to detainees and to retain the trust of those holding them in order to continue our visits. We strive to foster open and constructive dialogue with all those who are in a position to improve the situation. Provided it is respected on all sides, confidentiality is therefore conducive to such dialogue.

What kind of places of detention does the ICRC visit?

Between April and June 2012, the ICRC made 90 visits to 50 places of detention in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), including 16 prisons and various temporary facilities. ICRC delegates visited almost 10,700 detainees in all. Our teams visited permanent prisons and temporary facilities run by the interior ministry, by the defence ministry and by armed groups. Our work in the DRC is well established; the ICRC started visiting places of detention there in the early 1960s.

What are your main concerns in relation to detention in the DRC?

Generally speaking, people detained in connection with the hostilities often find themselves in high-risk, vulnerable circumstances.

In permanent detention facilities, our priority is to monitor the physical conditions. Our health, water, hygiene and sanitation specialists work with the prison authorities to address the main problems identified. Between April and June 2012, for instance, the ICRC provided daily meals to 3,100 detainees in seven prisons in the DRC. Wherever possible, we support the prison authorities' efforts to ensure that detainees live in decent conditions.

When it comes to temporary places of detention, the ICRC's main concern is to make sure that the detainees are treated in a dignified and humane way.


Sandrine Ducrest 

Sandrine Ducrest