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ICRC: on the frontline for the humane treatment of persons deprived of liberty


The ICRC's policy of not publicly reporting on visits made to persons deprived of liberty during the course of international armed conflict and internal strife has been the subject of much debate recently but ICRC spokesperson, Antonella Notari, argues that the approach is well-founded.

To be an ICRC delegate visiting those deprived of liberty as a result of international armed conflict and internal strife is an unenviable responsibility. During private interviews, he or she sometimes receives reports of grave violations of international humanitarian law such as torture or arbitrary violence that will provoke an overwhelming desire to speak out, to publicly denounce the perpetrators of the abuse in the hope of ending it as quickly as possible. This would satisfy a very understandable and natural reflex but wouldn't necessarily be in the best interest of those deprived of liberty -- delegates also understand the primary importance of maintaining their presence where people are held.

This regular ICRC presence in places of detention opens up the possibility for assistance and protection, of acting as an intermediary between captor and captive to improve treatment wherever necessary and to preserve links between persons deprived of liberty and their families. Working discreetly behind the scenes, however, should never be mistaken for meekness or collusion. The ICRC makes the strongest representations to detaining authorities all over the world when the circumstances in which people are held fall below the expectations of the relevant legislation. If the ICRC refrains from public denunciation of breaches of international humanitarian law, it does so not out of fear or dereliction but because its experience over 140 years demonstrates that its approach of persuasion, dialogue and humanitarian diplomacy is a valid one. Many first hand accounts by former detainees who have been visited by delegates bear witness to the improvements the ICRC can negotiate.

The emphasis placed by the ICR C on the maintenance of access through direct contact with the warring parties is also a product of its unique humanitarian mission to protect the lives and dignity of those affected by war and armed conflict. Armed conflict often brings out the worst in humanity, and people deprived of liberty as a result are sometimes extremely vulnerable. This has been recognised by more than 190 states party to the Geneva Conventions as well as many non-state groups. The wide-reaching respect for the ICRC as the impartial guardian of international humanitarian law means that it is allowed to monitor situations in thousands of places of detention worldwide where no other organisation can go. 

This is not to say that the ICRC is successful in eradicating all violations of international humanitarian law wherever it is present. However, public denunciation also has its own practical limits. In many contexts where the ICRC carries out its work there is often a complete lack of public interest in those being held and open complaints may go unheeded. In other situations, many respected international organisations use public pressure in an effort to bring about changes for the better but, if they do not succeed, the ICRC will still strive to be present as the ultimate line of defence. The greatest fear of any ICRC delegate is to lose contact, especially when abuse is evident. 

However, confidentiality is not unconditional. As a last resort the ICRC reserves the right to publicly denounce violations of IHL in the following circumstances: if violations are serious and repeated, if the approaches undertaken by the ICRC have failed to end them, if public denunciation is in the best interests of those deprived of their liberty and if delegates have directly witnessed the violations or if their veracity and amplitude have been documented in a verifiable and trustworthy way. Even if this ultimate step were to be sanctioned, the ICRC would insist on maintaining access to protec t the people concerned. 

In general, the ICRC remains convinced that its policy of confidentiality remains in the best interest of those deprived of their liberty worldwide. Wherever they are present, ICRC delegates carry out their work with dedication, professionalism and courage and they do so at the rock face, in dialogue with captives, captors, interrogators and the chains of military and civilian command. Toiling discreetly but far from quietly, they are often the first and last line of defence for those held during armed conflict, making every effort, behind the scenes, to protect life and human dignity.