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Treatment of persons held in Iraq - ICRC press conference on the leaked report

08-05-2004 Interview

Audio of ICRC Director of Operations Pierre Krähenbühl concerning the confidential ICRC report to coalition forces on the treatment of detainees in Iraq, portions of which were published by the Wall Street Journal. Includes opening statement and points raised in response to questions.


    ICRC Director of Operations Pierre Krähenbühl  

 1. Opening statement by the Director of Operations  
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, thank you indeed for joining us at this press conference. Some of you might have heard that we were intending to distribute the full report in the course of this briefing. That is not the case. I will just be commenting on a number of points. Let me say also that, the President of the ICRC, Mr Kellenberger, is today in Brussels. Had he been here in Geneva he would be addressing you personally on this matter. As you are aware, he has been directly, regularly and recently involved in a number of issues related to the detention in US hands. In his absence. President Kellenberger has asked me to share some of the following points. We need maybe to begin with a simple reminder with regard to the fact that the ICRC last year, in 2003, has visited over 460,000 detainees held in 1,920 different places of detention in close to 80 countries. That is just an overall figure to indicate also I think, as you well know, visiting prisons and prisoners is at the very heart of the ICRC's humanitarian mission. It is also one of the activities that is, from a human point of view, often the most challenging and at times destabilising in our individual experience behind the figures and the reports that one often hears the number of detainees details about conditions are human beings with all their questions and they are exposed often to arbitrariness, to fear, uncertainty about their fate and future. Now the attempt that we carry out in places of detention around the world to obtain access to prisoners, to talk to them, to intervene concretely on their behalf in order to secure and ensure their well-being and humane treatment is one of the most complex and important tasks of the ICRC. Now turning completely to the report that [name unknown ] just referred to, I would just like to begin by underlining that the excerpts of the report that were made public without the consent of the ICRC. The preparation and submission of such reports is part of the ICRC's standard procedures in the field of its visits to prisoners worldwide. These reports traditionally carry a specific mention that refers to the fact that they are strictly confidential and intended only for the authorities which they are presented to. It adds that the reports may not be published in full or in part without the consent of the ICRC. Now, as indicated already, this was done without our consent in this particular instance. Confidentiality as we have had oc casion on other opportunities to discuss is a vital element of the ICRC's operational approach. It is in our experience needed to establish meaningful working relations with the concerned authorities and to build trust with both the prisoners and the authorities. Confidentiality obviously also helps, and you know that this is for us a very important point, in obtaining access to prisoners worldwide, and I have just given you the figure of the number of people that we do manage to visit, and is in that sense essential to carry out meaningful work for the persons detained. That is the reason why today we are disturbed to see this report being made public. The second point I would like to make is that this report includes observations and recommendations from visits that took place between March and November 2003. The report itself was handed over to the coalition forces in February of 2004. It is important to understand that this report represents in a way a summary of concerns that were repeatedly brought to the attention of the coalition forces and the coalition provisional authority throughout 2003. I should maybe explain here briefly how these visits work. What ICRC delegates do is that they seek access to all person deprived of their freedom in situations of armed conflict or internal violence. What they do after obtaining such access is to carry out detailed and repeated visits to a given prison, police station or other. They do this to review the overall functioning of the particular place of detention and obviously to ascertain the well-being of the prisoners. To do that they meet individually with the prisoners, they hold private talks, in other words talks in which no other witness is present to follow the conversation. This, as I said, allows us to ascertain the treatment and conditions of detention and it is also something which is very often very important for prisoners, allows prisoners to write messages that are then shared with their relatives outside the prison. In many instances by the way, re -establishing communication between members of a family that were without news of a particular relative. The visits then ends with a formal talk with the detaining authority to share findings, concerns and to make recommendations for improvements. These concerns and recommendations are then usually summarized in writing. I make these points because it is for us important to understand that what appears in the report of February 2004 are observations that are consistent with those made earlier on several occasions orally and in writing throughout 2003. In that sense the ICRC has repeatedly made its concerns known to the coalition forces and requests its corrective measures prior to the submission of that particular report of which excerpts were published today. Now both for Abu Ghraib and other places of detention in Iraq, oral and written interventions of the ICRC specifically recalled in every instance both the laws and norms applicable that states have committed themselves to respect by adhering to the Geneva Conventions. Now you in particular here in Geneva among the press corps are well aware of the insistence of the ICRC stated both bilaterally and publicly for months now on the importance of the full respect of international humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions, that represent crucial and relevant set of rules aimed at preserving the life and dignity and ensuring the lawful treatment of prisoners. It has to be clear in the context of Iraq but also elsewhere, but in this instance in particular for Iraq, that the priority for the ICRC is to continue to have access to the detainees and that the ICRC is committed to assume its responsibility and mandate in Iraq both now, that is before June 30 and after that date of June 2004. Now let me add a concluding remark before I take the questions. I do not intend to comment on individual findings contained in the document that, in our view, should have remained confidential. I will however say that it is clear that our findings do not allow to conclude that what we were dealing with here, in the case of Abu Ghraib were isolated acts of individual members of the coalition forces. What we have described amounts to a pattern and a broad system. Thank you very much.
 2. On giving the report to the detaining authorities  
In the case of this particular report, it was submitted in Iraq to Ambassador Bremer's deputy on 12 February and then discussed with General Sanchez and Ambassador Bremer on 26 February. Findings that are contained in this particular report were previously discussed at different levels of the coalition forces at different moments between March and November 2003. There were different dates, there were discussions in April, May, July and there were different moments with either direct face-to-face conversations or in writing, specific written interventions we have made on the same issues and, as I said, I won't go into the details, but you see from the report that indeed they do not concern only issues of water and food, but clearly on treatment.


 3. On feedback from the authorities and the impact of ICRC's reporting  
Yes, I think there were a number of instances in which we have indications both inside Iraq and as recently as this week, in a telephone conversation between President Kellenberger and Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, in which I think you will have noted from the public comments coming from the State Department that indeed the findings, the references were that our findings were being taken very seriously and that exhaustive feedbacks, detailed feedbacks would be given to us and measures taken. Now we had asked for that, as I said, corrective measu res to be taken for quite some time and indeed inside Iraq, as a result of follow-up visits which we carried out, and that is indeed why it is so important for us to carry out repeated visits to detainees, there were in our most recent visits indications that some of the material problems that we had noted had been addressed, some of these issues. That is not to say that all of the problems went away, and that certainly did not address the fact that we were dealing here with a broader pattern and a system as opposed to individual acts and that there was still a lot of work to be done on that.


 4. On questions of treatment raised in the leaked report  
Yes, I think that the definitions we have seen from the report quote that the elements that we found were tantamount to torture. That is the quote that comes from the report but I think you will have different definitions of what torture amounts to. What we feel, and I think you have seen that from the photographs and that certainly is what you find there, is that there were clearly instances of degrading and inhuman treatment.


 5. On the dilemma of confidentiality and maintaining access to prisoners  
Frankly speaking, in the difficult situation that is Iraq, and with all the security environment that I do not need to describe to you, we took a decision, including after our offices were targeted in October, that there was one particular field that we were not going to give up to the best of our possibilities at any cost - and that was to continue to visit prisoners because, yes, we were shocked, like many other people, to see the photographs, and we were face-to-face with these people inside the prisons and the delegate's visit does not amount to taking a leisurely look around and many months later writing up a report. It is sitting down with the authorities who are in charge of that place and describing them in ways that I think you can for once see, not that I am very pleased about that today, but you can for once see in the report, the sorts of things that we have put forward to the authorities that were there. Yes, there were situations that remain unacceptable and difficult and there were others that were worked on. And that is the kind of approach that we have, and so we think that, in terms of reputation, that it is certainly valued by many people and first and foremost I have to tell you by the people who we visit, that it is important that somebody comes into these places of detention and tries to work quickly on improving their situation and not leaving them to face such situations alone and without any form of intervention whatsoever. Now I realise - and, believe me, it is for us a dilemma, and we have experienced it and lived it elsewhere, that there are moments where, yes, of course, we, as human beings we would like just to stand up and speak out, but you have seen, we have visited 400,000 detainees around the world. Some of them get nothing of the attention that is currently being discussed around Iraq and we need to obtain and maintain access to these people. That is vital. And in our assessment - and it is true that it is a judgement that we carry - we have made the assessment that we were still having a meaningful impact through our visits. Had we not, we would maybe have come to another conclusion and taken other measures. But I tell you, in all fairness and openness, yes we believe that we are still having an impact.