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Question of the human rights of all persons subjected to any form of detention or imprisonment

03-04-1996 Statement

52nd Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights – Agenda item 8 - 3 April 1996 – Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mr Chairman,

At a time when humanitarian action is becoming more complex by the day, the International Committee of the Red Cross remains concerned with the need to achieve greater complementarity among humanitarian aid agencies. While the international community is having to respond more and more rapidly to humanitarian needs of the utmost urgency, it is still desirable that from the very inception of humanitarian operations States should take care not to entrust new agencies with tasks that are already being carried out under existing mandates. In the field also, there must be greater efforts on the part of all concerned towards more effective coordination, especially to avoid situations in which certain humanitarian agencies take on new tasks in areas with which they are unfamiliar or in which needs are already being covered by others.

As we all know, it is the victims who ultimately pay the price for the duplication of activities. To avoid wasting financial resources and hence reducing the amount of aid that actually reaches the victims, close consultation is essential. Moreover, such duplication gives States benefiting from aid the opportunity to act as arbiters between aid agencies and makes it possible to apply different standards, which can also be detrimental to the victims.

It is against this backdrop that the ICRC would like to comment briefly on two issues that it considers of vital importance: first of all, the conditions of detention and the treatment of detainees, especially in the light of the draft optional protocol to the Convention against Torture, and secondly, the problem of people reported missing around the world, and more particularly in t he context of the former Yugoslavia.

The situation of detainees has deteriorated in countries that have been the scene of armed conflict, notably in Africa. Suffice it to say that in Rwanda, in 1995, the ICRC had to contribute substantially to the upkeep of over 70,000 detainees.

These facts underscore the importance of making rapid progress towards effective complementarity between aid agencies in the area of protection for detainees, especially in sensitive contexts such as those in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina. While the ICRC welcomes recent initiatives taken in the field to improve coordination in this respect, it urges all concerned to explore other possibilities for cooperation, with due regard to the respective operational methods of each agency. For example, there can be no doubt that in such a vast field as that of rebuilding prison, judicial and police systems, where so much remains to be done, the participation of other humanitarian organizations could be of great value.

Mr Chairman,

Torture is a practice that continues to flourish worldwide. The ICRC welcomes any initiative designed to combat this scourge, in particular the draft optional protocol to the Convention against Torture.

In order to increase protection for detainees, the mechanism proposed in the draft submitted to the Commission must, in the ICRC's opinion, comprise several fundamental guarantees.

First of all, it should not detract from existing mandates. Thus, the mechanism of ad hoc missions provided for in the draft protocol might be conceived as complementary to the system of prison visits that the ICRC has used in situations of internal violence for decades. Indeed, such visits are designed to afford tangible and long-term protection to detainees. The fact that its visits are conducted regularly enables the ICRC to follow the detainees on an individua l basis and to maintain a permanent dialogue with the detaining authorities. It is therefore important that this system of regular protection be preserved, in parallel with the mechanism being proposed.

Secondly, the missions to States party to the Convention provided for in the draft protocol should be entrusted to independent experts specializing in protection, and those experts should be allowed access to any place of detention of their choice in the State in question and to all detainees held in each place.

Mr Chairman,

The search for missing persons is another humanitarian issue that remains a painful one in many contexts. It is an especially burning question in the former Yugoslavia, where it has become urgent to devise a system of complementarity among the various bodies seeking to resolve the matter. 

For the international community, the aims are quite clear. In general terms, light must be shed on the often appalling circumstances in which disappearances took place, so as to help the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of war crimes. Moreover, on the individual level, every effort must be made to relieve the anguish of families living in uncertainty as to the fate of their relatives. This is where the ICRC must play its role.

Indeed, the tracing of missing persons and the restoration of family links are an area in which the ICRC unquestionably has a great deal of experience. The activities which its Central Tracing Agency has been carrying out since the beginning of this century have been expressly recognized in many provisions of international humanitarian law. In the former Yugoslavia, where ICRC delegates were working even before the outbreak of hostilities, the ICRC has set up a vast network of contacts and means of collecting information. Through its data bank in Zagreb, w hich contains the particulars of tens of thousands of people, and with the help of the worldwide Red Cross and Red Crescent network which covers the entire international

community, the ICRC has already been able to reply to the enquiries of hundreds of thousands of anxious families.

The ICRC is in an excellent position to maintain contact with and gather information from families at whose side it remained throughout the conflict. The fear and distrust harboured by the relatives of victims, and especially by those who have information that could elucidate the fate of missing persons, must not be underestimated. The ICRC's neutrality and independence, which enable it to work in strict confidentiality if necessary, are conducive to the communication of information which is indispensable in this context. Needless to say, the cooperation of the former parties to the conflict is also essential if the necessary data are to be gathered from the local population.

These considerations led the parties to the Dayton agreement to confirm expressly, in Annex 7, the ICRC's mandate to trace missing persons. It is on that basis that the ICRC chairs a working group on the subject comprising representatives of the former parties to the conflict. Other participants are the signatories and witnesses to the Dayton agreement and a number of observers, one of whom is the expert in charge of the special process set up by the Commission on Human Rights.

Moreover, the ICRC has initiated, under the responsibility of the High Representative, the establishment of a group to promote consultation among the different organizations involved in various capacities in efforts to elucidate the fate of missing persons.

Taking all these factors into account, the ICRC believes that the mechanisms already in place are sufficient and that there is no need for new ones. What is needed now is the pol itical will to proceed. It would therefore be advisable for this Commission to invite the parties to cooperate within the framework of the governmental mechanism set up by the ICRC, and with the Joint Commission established by the Republic of Croatia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in parallel with the Dayton agreement.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

(Ref.: UN(1996)7,7b)