Iraq: ICRC explains position over detention report and treatment of prisoners

Thank you for joining us at this press conference that the ICRC has called following the publication today of articles in the Wall Street Journal that quote large excerpts from a confidential report on detention in Iraq dated January 2004 and submitted by the ICRC to the Coalition Forces in February 2004.

    The ICRC's director of operations, Pierre Krähenbühl
©ICRC/T. Gassmann/ 

Let me say that the President of the ICRC, Mr Jakob Kellenberger, is today in Brussels. Had he been in Geneva, he would have addressed you personally. As you are aware, President Kellenberger has been directly, regularly and recently dealing with issues related to detention of people in US hands. This Wednesday, he took the initiative of discussing the ICRC's observations and concerns related to Abu Ghraib prison with Secretary of State Colin Powell over the phone. You will have seen references in the media to this and to the fact that Secretary Powell indicated that the ICRC findings were taken very seriously.

In his absence, President Kellenberger has asked me to share the following ICRC position with you:

I would like to begin by underlining that the report (excerpts of the report) was made available to the 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.

As a reminder, the ICRC last year visited 469,648 detainees, held in 1,923 places of detention, in about 80 countries.

These reports carry a specific mention that they are strictly confidential and intended only for the authorities to which they are presented. It adds that the reports may not be published, in full or in part, without the consent of the ICRC.

As already indicated this report was, however, released without our consent. In view of the fact that this notion of confidentiality is an element vital to obtaining access to prisoners world-wide and that access is in turn essential for us to carry out meaningful work for the persons detained, the ICRC is unhappy to see this report being made public.

A 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 (CF) in February of 2004.

It is important to understand that this report represents the summary of concerns that were regularly brought to the attention of the CF throughout 2003.

I should perhaps explain here briefly how these visits work:

ICRC delegates traditionally negotiate access to all persons deprived of their freedom in situations of armed conflict or internal violence. Upon obtaining such access they carry out detailed visits to a gi ven prison, police station or any other type of detention place. They do this to review the overall functioning of the prisons and well-being of the prisoners.

They meet individually with the detainees for private talks, without the presence of witnesses. This allows them to ascertain the treatment and conditions of detention and enables the prisoner to write a message to his or her family.

The visits end with a formal talk with the detaining authority to share findings and concerns and to make recommendations for improvements.

This is important to understand in the sense that what appears in the report of February 2004 are observations 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 requested corrective measures prior to the submission of this particular report.

Both for Abu Ghraib and for other places of detention in Iraq, oral and written interventions of the ICRC specifically recalled the laws and norms that States have committed themselves to respect by adhering to the Geneva Conventions.

You are well aware of the insistence of the ICRC, stated bilaterally and publicly for months now, on the importance of full respect for international humanitarian law (which includes the Geneva Conventions) that represents a crucial and relevant set of rules aimed at preserving the life and dignity, and the lawful treatment, of prisoners.

Thank you.

Responding to questions from the journalists present Mr. Krähenbühl also made the following points:  

 How the ICRC transmitted the report to the detaining authorities:  

The report in question was handed to Mr. Paul Bremer and Lt-Gen. Ricardo Sanchez in February 2004; various aspects of its contents had been discussed with the Coalition authorities at different times and at different levels during 2003 and included in documents submitted to them; "I won't go into the details but ... they don't concern only issues of water and food but also clearly of treatment."  

 On feedback from the authorities and the impact of the ICRC's reporting:  

On a number of occasions the ICRC was assured that its findings were being taken very seriously, and that measures would be taken; in later visits there were indications that some of the material problems had been addressed; however, more remained to be done, particularly given that "we were dealing here with a broader pattern and a system, as opposed to individual acts..."  

 On questions of treatment raised in the leaked report:  

Some of the elements the ICRC found "were tantamount to torture.... I think you will have different definitions of what torture amounts to; what we feel, and I think what you see from the that there were clearly instances of degrading and inhumane treatment."  

 On the dilemma of confidentiality and maintaining access to prisoners:  

The extracts of the leaked report shows how the ICRC approaches detention problems; "there were situations that remained unacceptable and difficult and there were others that were worked on – and that is the kind of approach that we have.... in terms of reputation it is certainly valued by many people – first and foremost by the people we visit..." The ICRC believed that its visits made a difference – "Had we not [thought so], we would maybe have come to another conclusion and taken other measures..."  


 Listen to   audio  of Mr. Krähenbühl  Read ICRC   press release  of 16 January 2004, on President Kellenberger's visit to the United States  


 More on ICRC   visits to prisoners