Madagascar: Improving life in prisons
In 2011, the ICRC reinforced its presence in the Indian Ocean, establishing a regional delegation in Antananarivo (Madagascar) that also covers the Comoros, Mauritius and the Seychelles. Christoph Vogt, head of delegation, explains the ICRC’s role in a context with no armed conflicts but major humanitarian concerns.
Why is the ICRC present in Madagascar and in a region that is relatively calm, in which there are no armed conflicts?
The prevailing poverty and recurrent political crises affect the situation in prisons. In 2002, the Madagascar authorities gave the ICRC access to persons being held in connection with the political situation at the time. We soon realized that conditions in the prisons were extremely harsh. Having observed the needs, we decided to act and help improve the situation.
Our delegation, with its small core of specialists, provides know-how for improving conditions of detention in general. Lack of personnel and resources, and the sheer size of the country, make it even more difficult for the government to keep up places of detention. By giving us access to the prisons, the authorities have shown that they’re willing to cooperate and have nothing to hide.
What are the priorities of the ICRC regional delegation in Antananarivo?
In Madagascar and the Comoros, we focus on visits to persons deprived of freedom. We work with the prison administrations and try to provide added value in several basic areas such as health, nutrition, access to water, infrastructure renovation and respect for judicial guarantees. We engage in constant and constructive dialogue with the authorities on general conditions of detention, and this has led to substantial improvements.
Our second priority is to provide support for the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, especially in terms of emergency preparedness (political disturbances or tension).
Third, we work to help the authorities integrate international humanitarian law and international human rights law, in particular as concerns appropriate use of force to maintain law and order.
Lastly, thanks to the Special Fund for the Disabled, we support an orthopaedic centre in Madagascar that provides the handicapped with excellent physical rehabilitation services.
How has the humanitarian situation in Madagascar changed these past few years?
Madagascar has been politically unstable for a couple of decades. The 2009 crisis aggravated an already precarious socioeconomic situation, with a high malnutrition rate and poverty threshold.
Unfortunately, that situation is reflected in the country’s prisons, in a variety of ways: overcrowding, poor access to health care, rundown infrastructure, disregard for judicial guarantees, and so on. There have been some improvements, but the situation in the prisons remains preoccupying.
In addition, the political crisis struck at a time of mounting insecurity, especially in the south of the island, where zebu rustlers, or dahalo, are worrying the police.
What about on the other islands covered by the delegation?
In the Comoros, besides our work in the prisons, we are also active with regard to unlawful migration to Mayotte and the resulting humanitarian needs. Families are separated as a result and people placed in detention, and this can leave especially vulnerable people – pregnant women, children or sick people – in dire straits.
In addition, the Comoros, Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles are prone to natural disasters such as cyclones, floods and drought. As such, the ICRC and its partners in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement have a role to play in the region.
What will be the main challenges in the coming years?
Overcrowding and malnutrition in Madagascar’s prisons remain major concerns for the authorities and for the ICRC. A number of partners that worked in the prisons until the end of 2012 have now withdrawn, and we have therefore extended our activities to more jails – we now work in 27 of the country’s 41 prison facilities. These prisons will have to be included in national health programmes such as the national malaria or tuberculosis control programmes.
Another challenge is our work on integrating the rules of international human rights law on the use of force in law and order activities – in other words, their inclusion in the doctrine and training of the security forces – and on the establishment of a system of penalties for proven abuse or violations. What is encouraging is that the authorities have shown that they are truly committed to making progress in this regard, and our role is to help them do so.