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Iraq: helping detainees and their families

28-06-2010 Interview

Laurent Saugy spent two years in Iraq coordinating the ICRC’s work for detainees and other people protected by international humanitarian law. He replies to questions about the challenges the ICRC faces in this area of its activities.


  Laurent Saugy 

 Where does the ICRC visit detainees in Iraq?  

Let me say first of all that visiting detainees is one of the ICRC's priorities in Iraq. Ensuring that detainees and prisoners of war are treated humanely and are held in acceptable conditions has been a constant concern for the ICRC ever since it started working in the country, in 1980.

Currently, more than 30,000 detai nees, held all over the country by three distinct authorities – the federal government, the Kurdistan Regional Government, and the United States Forces - Iraq (USF-I, the successor to the Multi-National Force - Iraq, or MNF-I) – are visited regularly by ICRC expatriate staff.

      We first visited a place of detention run by the current Iraqi government in October 2007, when we went to Fort Suse, near Sulaymaniya. Gradually, we have been able to go to other places. Since 2008, the ICRC has visited 25,000 people held in 35 places of detention under Iraq's justice, defence and interior ministries, and its labour and social affairs ministry.

In the Kurdistan Region, where visits started in 1992, the ICRC visits 3,000 detainees each year in more than 30 places of detention.

Our organization also continues to visit around 3,000 people currently in US custody at Camp Cropper, near Baghdad's airport.

 What are the main challenges you are facing? Do you have access to all places of detention in the country?  

Although the Iraqi authorities generally welcome visits by the ICRC in places of detention, we have not yet been able to visit detainees everywhere in the country.

One reason is the security environment. ICRC delegates cannot travel everywhere. It should not be forgotten that there is still an armed conflict under way, in a country that is struggling to deal with the legacy of decades of conflict. Some areas remain dangerous – in Mosul, Salahidin and Diyala, for example, ICRC delegates have not yet been able to visit detainees.

Another reason is that, despite declarations that have been made, the ICRC has not in fact always been able to visit all detainees in all places. Right now, as we speak, the ICRC is still waiting for a response to its requests to visit more places of detention. As in many other contexts where it works, the detainees most in need of protection are often the ones that are most difficult to reach. The situation is just as frustrating, if not more so, for the hundreds of families seeking information about their relatives.

An overall agreement formally granting the ICRC access to all places of detention throughout the country has yet to receive final approval. We are confident that this will happen in the near future, since the issue has now reached the level of the Council of Ministers.

 What impact has the ICRC's work had on the lives of detainees in Iraq? What has the ICRC achieved by visiting detainees?  


Detention visits in Iraq: facts and figures

  • During the 1980s and the early 1990s, the ICRC visited thousands of prisoners of war held in connection with the Iran-Iraq War and the first Gulf War.
  • The ICRC has visited 69,500 detainees in Iraq since 2003, visiting 18,000 in the period January-June 2010 alone:
        - 5,853 held by the United States forces
        - 10,165 held by the Iraqi federal authorities
        - 2,199 held by the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Detainees often view the ICRC as a " gate to the outside world. " We are the ones who can bring reassuring news from their loved ones, and who can carry a message back to the families. This is done in full transparency: the detaining authorities check the messages, which are allowed to contain nothing but family news. More than 400,000 of these " Red Cross messages " have been exchanged between detainees and their families in Iraq since 2003.

For detainees, a visit by ICRC staff is also an opportunity to speak privately with someone who will truly listen to what they have to say. The ICRC holds private interviews with detainees to gather information about the treatment they receive and the condit ions in which they are being held. On the basis of this information, gathered from as many detainees as possible, and of observations made by its own staff, it shares findings and recommendations with the authorities.

The fact that the ICRC does not publicize its findings by no means indicates that it is satisfied with the conditions in any given place of detention, or that it is inactive. The ICRC uses confidentiality as a tool to make absolutely clear the exclusively humanitarian – and completely neutral – nature of its work: doing so is essential to its continued access to detainees. The ICRC believes that the best way to prevent or halt ill-treatment, and to ensure decent conditions of detention, is by maintaining unrestricted access to detainees and urging the detaining authorities to make any necessary improvements.

Families and communities also suffer when one of their members is held in detention, which breaks ties, keeps parents apart from their children, and often results in families being left without a breadwinner.

The ICRC provided financial support enabling the families of nearly 30,000 people held in Camp Bucca, a prison camp in Iraq run by the US military, to visit their detained relatives until the facility closed in September 2009.

Families often turn to the ICRC when seeking information on their detained relatives. To help them, we have been running, for many years now, a telephone helpline system enabling them to request information on the whereabouts of missing and possibly detained relatives. From 2007 to April 2010, the ICRC helpline received 187,000 phone calls.

Foreign prisoners, far from their countries and families, are particularly vulnerable not only during the period of their detention but also after their release. The ICRC can often facilitate their repatriation. In the past seven years, the ICRC has helped repatriate more than 300 ex- detainees.

 Has the ICRC's work resulted in any improvements? What can the ICRC do to help improve detention conditions?  

Our visits frequently lead to improvements in the way prisons are run, in particular when local authorities understand what we are trying to do. ICRC visits can only be expected to have a significant impact when the detaining authorities, both within the prisons themselves and in the upper echelons of government, understand the spirit of our work, see us as a partner and are willing to consider our recommendations as being in their own interest.

Sometimes, it may not seem possible to reconcile security imperatives with humanitarian concerns. But I believe there is no real obstacle to doing so. It is not only detainees but also the detaining authorities who can benefit from the ICRC’s humanitarian services. In Iraq, for example, the ICRC plays a constructive role in the system of interministerial coordination. Although it cannot have a seat on interministerial committees, it advises and shares information on what it observes in prisons. The ICRC voices the concerns of detainees and their families, and shares its own findings, to promote improvements. Protecting the health of the detainee population, for example, requires that various ministries (health, justice, etc.) coordinate their efforts, which may be enhanced by the advice and information the ICRC can provide. The measures taken to promote better health among detainees are important not only for the individuals concerned but also for the entire country's health system, which cannot stop at the prison gates.

Nor can basic guarantees of due process and the rule of law stop at prison gates: people deprived of their freedom must not be deprived of their rights. And the gates must open in a timely manner for those who have served their sentences.

Another important thing we do to improve living conditions for detainees is to build and repair water systems and other facilities. On the basis of assessments carried out with the Iraqi authorities in 12 places of detention since the beginning of the year, we will launch new projects in detention facilities located in several governorates.

 What are the main concerns and rationales prompting ICRC visits to Iraqi places of detention?  

We know from experience that detainees are among the most vulnerable people in conflict situations, simply because attending to their needs is not considered a priority.

The treatment they receive and the conditions in which they are held result from a complex range of factors, the most important of which is applicable law. It is essential that laws be adhered to at all stages of detention – by those who have direct control over detainees, but also by the entire system.

During its visits, the ICRC also addresses basic issues of due process. For instance, if it appears that detainees do not have systematic access to a defence lawyer, the ICRC will raise the issue in its recommendations.

 How do the authorities react to the ICRC's recommendations?  

The reactions vary greatly from person to person and from area to area. The role of the ICRC is not yet understood by all. While some may view the ICRC's activities as interference, others realize that they benefit from ICRC visits, which can, for example, ease tensions inside a prison.

Some ICRC recommendations take time to be implemented. The ICRC is patient, however, and committed to a long-term humanitarian effort in Iraq. We are encouraged that some prison directors do implement ICRC recom mendations whenever they can. The rapid turnover of prison officials makes it difficult, however, to build trust and develop a long-lasting working relationship between them and ICRC delegates.