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Iraq: ICRC continues to visit places of detention

07-10-2003 Operational Update

Relentless violence, tensions and uncertainty in Iraq have made the humanitarian mission ever more difficult to carry out. But despite the challenges, the ICRC and its partners are still doing a lot.

The prevailing insecurity in Iraq has obliged humanitarian organisations, including the ICRC, to adapt their way of helping the population. The ICRC currently focuses on activities for which it has a specific mandate under international humanitarian law – such as visits to persons deprived of their freedom – and on emergency support for the water and sanitation and medical sectors.

The organisation also continues to cooperate with its local partner, the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS), and seeks to strengthen the society by providing finance and training.

Rules applicable in Occupied Territory

Article 42 of the 1907 Hague Regulations states that a "territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army." The rules of occupation are complemented and developed in the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 relative to the protection of civilian persons.  

The duties of the Occupying Power include restoring and ensuring, as far as possible, public order and safety; providing the population with food and medical supplies; maintaining medical facilities and services; ensuring public health and hygiene; and facilitating the work of educational institutions. The Occupying Power should also allow and facilitate relief programmes undertaken by other states or impartial humanitarian organizations if the population is inadequately supplied.  

The ICRC regularly reminds the Occupying Powers in Iraq of their obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention.


Even though some staff have had to be withdrawn because of the security situation, the ICRC continues to operate in Iraq with a core team of expatriates and Iraqi staff based in offices across the country.

 Reacting to emergencies  

" We have had to adjust our way of working to take account of the risks " , says Georges Comninos, who oversees the ICRC's Iraq operation at headquarters in Geneva. " However, we are still doing a lot. We also try to closely monitor the humanitarian situation so that we can react quickly to any major emergencies such as the devastating bomb attack on a mosque in Najaf in late August ."  

The ICRC carries out regular visits to places of detention in Iraq including different facilities under the control of the Occupying Powers. All the people detained at these facilities - whether they are prisoners of war, civilian internees, security internees or suspected of common law offences – are protected by the Third or Fourth Geneva Conventions that include the right to ICRC visits.

The ICRC's main objective is to monitor the conditions of detention – factors such as accommodation, medical care, food, water and sanitation – and the treatment of detainees by the authorities in charge. The ICRC has registered thousands of detainees to be able to monitor their condition. (Read more on the ICRC's visits to prisoners)

 Anxious families  

Many families of detainees in Iraq face the anguish of not knowing what happened to their relatives. Through the work of the ICRC families are informed of their detained relatives'whereabouts and given the possibility to restore contacts by sending a Red Cross Message.

" This is extremely important for the families " , says Georges Comninos. " Often they don't even know that their relative was detained. This causes a lot of anxiety for the families who desperately try to find out what happened to their loved ones. "

Since March 2003, more than 10,000 such messages have been exchanged between detainees and their families. During two visits to detention places in late September alone nearly 1,300 Red Cross Messages were collected from detainees and several hundred distributed to them.

In total, Iraqis have sent and received more than 21,000 Red Cross Messages since March 2003. These messages are distributed and collected with the help of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society.