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Yemen: Alleviating the suffering of detainees

31-07-2013 Interview

The work carried out in Yemen by the ICRC in behalf of detainees and other people protected under international humanitarian law can be very challenging. Daniel MacSweeney, who spent two years in the country coordinating these efforts, responds to questions.

Where does the ICRC visit detainees in Yemen, and why do you visit them?

We visit detainees held by various authorities. So far this year, on 32 visits, we have visited over 5,800 detainees in 14 places of detention in Abyan, Aden, Sa’ada, Sana’a and Taiz. The aim of the visits is to monitor the conditions in which the detainees are being held and the treatment they receive, and to make sure they have access to suitable health care. Where improvements are needed, we present our findings and recommendations confidentially to the detaining authorities. We do follow-up visits to make sure that recommendations have been acted upon. In Yemen, we also provide support for the renovation of prison premises, enhancements to water supplies and other improvements, as appropriate, in situations where the detaining authorities are unable to do the work themselves.

Much remains to be done. There are many different kinds of detention being carried out by many different entities. People are being detained for security reasons, for common crimes and on other grounds. There is tribal detention, and detention by those opposing the authorities.

We are currently focusing on visits to people detained by the State authorities to ensure that the detainees are being treated humanely, that living conditions are acceptable, and that the detainees can be in touch with their families. We even managed during the last couple of years to visit detainees held by Al Qaeda.

What is the ICRC doing to help the families of people held in Guantanamo, many of whom are from Yemen?

Since January 2002, the ICRC has been visiting detainees in Guantanamo and providing its Red Cross message service to facilitate the exchange of family news between detainees and their relatives. In 2007, we began a phone service giving almost every family or detainee the right to a one-hour phone call every two months. More recently, there have been Skype calls. These links to family members are a lifeline for people imprisoned in Guantanamo. Not long ago, a detainee who had refused calls for years agreed to take them…Then the family came and saw him for the first time, and that was very moving.

During the hunger strike in Guantanamo, the families were understandably very concerned about what was happening to their detained relatives. The Skype calls gave them an opportunity to see how their loved ones were doing without relying on often inaccurate or incomplete reports in the media.

What has the ICRC done to enhance protection for civilians in Yemen?

Out of the many issues linked to protection in Yemen, we are focusing on four: the dangers facing health-care services and patients in armed conflict, the need to distinguish between civilians and combatants in armed conflict, the use of force during demonstrations, and the use of landmines.

It is extremely important that we enter into dialogue with all concerned and that we convince them of the need to uphold the law and to fulfil their obligations.

That is precisely what we did in 2011, for example, following the events of Jumat al-Karama, or the "Friday of Dignity" – during which around 50 people were killed and hundreds injured here in Sana’a after armed men opened fire at peaceful demonstrators – when we reminded those involved of the obligation, under international humanitarian law and international human rights law, to protect civilians.

Gradually, we managed to establish a dialogue with individuals and groups involved in the demonstrations, clashes and fighting on the need to protect protesters and other civilians. Currently, we are taking part in discussions with the aim of obtaining better access to people who need our help, especially in remote areas where air strikes are happening.

What were the main challenges you faced here in Yemen, and what is the outlook now?

Our work went through different phases, and it was difficult at times to have access to detainees. When Yemenis think about detention, they often do so in terms of a tribal framework that makes it a challenge to explain to the authorities what we do to help detainees and why they should allow an "outside organization" to do those things.

A big hope for the future would be to get a framework agreement with the Yemeni State that really works, that provides access to all detainees and all detention places, and an improved dialogue on matters of humanitarian concern with all of the authorities. The ICRC has entered into discussions with President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi with the aim of reaching a written agreement that would give the ICRC more systematic access to detainees held by the Yemeni State authorities. We have received an encouraging response and are making progress on this issue.

We are also considering how we can redefine our role in connection with migration. Yemen is on a migration route from the Horn of Africa to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, and the ICRC assists migrants who are in custody pending deportation.



Daniel MacSweeney