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Visiting people deprived of their freedom : Combating torture and ill treatment


In situations of conflict or violence, anyone deprived of freedom may be subjected to torture and other ill-treatment at each stage of their detention. To prevent and try to put a stop to such practices is one of the ICRC's main concerns. Even when ICRC delegates are allowed to visit prisoners during the interrogation period, which is often considered the most dangerous, they are very rarely able to do so at places where such acts are committed.

The ICRC's work to combat torture and ill-treatment is largely based on convergent accounts by prisoners of everything that has happened to them since their arrest. Any physical and psychological after-effects observed by the ICRC doctor, which sometimes corroborate their statements, are also taken into account.


REF: GE-E-00048  

All this information is gathered during conversations in private with the prisoners. It is then analysed, compared and evaluated in the light of statements from other sources to check intrinsic consistency and authenticity, for the ICRC is well aware that the strength of its representations lies in their credibility. Subject to the individual prisoners'permission, the ICRC passes on allegations of torture or ill-treatment to the authorities. In some cases it calls for an inquiry to establish the facts and prevent the recurrence of such acts. In others, it goes straight to the top and asks the highest authorities to put a stop to them. If, when a case is cited, the prisoner concerned does not want to be named in connection with it or the delegates fear that their intervention might be followed by reprisals, the ICRC will proceed differently. lf, however, the lives of prisoners are directly threatened, it will contact the authorities at the next level of responsibility, calling for warnings that acts of torture will be punished and for improvements in the training of prison guards.

Torture and ill-treatment may indicate a deliberate intention to punish, deter, interrogate or even terrorize. In such situations only the delegate's ability to convince and influence people - which requires tenacity and patience - will yield results. But unless the highest authorities show the necessary political will, the ICRC's effectiveness will be limited. In practice, its work and that of the human rights a gencies - which is based on public opinion campaigns - complement one another.

A disorganized prison system may also give rise to torture and ill-treatment. In such cases the ICRC will try to identify the causes of any malfunction and act upon them. In a prison where ill-treatment was regularly inflicted, for instance, delegates noticed that the untrained guards were too few in number to maintain security and believed that violence was the only means for them to do their job. The ICRC alerted the relevant ministry and persuaded it to increase the number of guards and train them properly. As a result, there were far fewer complaints of ill-treatment.

Torture: no definition broad enough 

To give itself sufficient scope for action, the ICRC has never defined the term " torture " . There are always two aspects to torture, one physical and the other psychological; they are interlinked and inseparable. The psychological effects often go far deeper than the physical effects. For instance, seeing torture inflicted on one's children or other loved ones, or even on somebody else, may prove much more traumatic than actually undergoing physical torture oneself. Torture also has a strong cultural connotation. Its significance within a given social order - and the intention behind it -varies widely. Some behaviour may be regarded as " benign " in one culture, whereas in another it may violate, for example, a religious taboo.

The ICRC has therefore decided not to adopt any of the definitions of torture formulated by the international community in recent years, although it may refer to them if it feels that doing so might help to combat the phenomenon of torture.

The doctor's role in visits to torture victims 

In principle, every ICRC team visiting prisoners who may have been tortured includes a doctor to examine them and assess their physical and psychological condition. For people who have been brutalized and humiliated by torture, this meeting with a doctor from outside is often invaluable, for they can be reassured as to their state of health. It is particularly important for victims of sexual torture: they will often confide more readily in a doctor than in some other delegate. The doctor examines the prisoners and the results go on file, possibly to serve as supporting evidence. With the respective prisoner's consent, detailed allegations may be used in representations to put a stop to torture. The ICRC doctor acts as a " neutral medical intermediary " . As such, he or she may remind the prison doctors of medical ethics, particularly in hunger strikes, for instance by drawing their attention to the World Medical Association's Declaration of Tokyo, which prohibits any active or passive participation by doctors in torture or any other forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.


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