|ICRC Action on Behalf of Prisoners (International Committee of the Red Cross , 1998, 36 p.)|
For several decades the international community has been intensifying its efforts, both in terms of legislation and in the field, to protect people deprived of their freedom. The ICRC's presence in the prison environment is one way of promoting respect for human dignity. Its intervention, which takes place in situations of acute crisis, must then gradually be supplemented by the human rights activities of other agencies. While pursuing its own approach, which is based on dialogue with the authorities and on discretion, the ICRC has strengthened its operational cooperation in this field with national, international and non-governmental organizations such as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNICEF and Mcins sans frontis, so as to avoid duplication of efforts and inconsistency in any action undertaken. Other components of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement sometimes do welfare work in prisons in peacetime; certain National Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies thus provide material, psychological and social support for their countries' prisoners.
Getting professionals of the prison world to share their views and experiences
The problems encountered in prisons cannot be considered in a vacuum. In crisis situations the penitentiary system is only one of the factors affecting the situation of prisoners. Since 498$ (and with the support until 1992 of the Henry Dunant Institute - the training and research unit of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement), the ICRC has organized six seminars for African officials with national responsibility for the administration of prisons. After examining the international norms governing the work of professionals in the penitentiary system, the seminars focused on day-to-day prison management (personnel, health, training and prison work), with discussions of specific and readily applicable solutions, i.e. adapted to available financial resources and local realities. They were also designed to enhance the participants' ability to approach the political authorities and secure their backing for proposed reforms. Aware that certain problems encountered in the various places of detention went beyond the scope of the penitentiary system itself, the ICRC has secured the participation of senior members of the judiciary, including public prosecutors, in its work. The topics discussed have included the position of prisons in African societies, interrelations between the judicial and penitentiary systems, enhancing the status of prison staff and, lastly, alternative penalties to imprisonment.
"What matters is not only the good the ICRC brings, but even more the bad it prevents."
Registration Ho. 220/82, Robben Island Prison, 1962-1990
It is hard for the ICRC to assess the true impact of its visits to people deprived of their freedom; it would also be difficult to say how things might have been if the ICRC had been unable to operate in some situation or another. Nelson Mandela qualified the ICRC's work in these terms: "What matters is not only the good the ICRC brings, but even more the bad it prevents." All conversations with prisoners show that a visit by the ICRC has at least one result: it offers them a lifeline, an opportunity to talk and be listened to, to voice their tensions and frustrations (sometimes quite aggressively), and to confide their anxieties and fears in someone well-disposed towards them. The psychological effect of contact with the outside world is very important and should not be underestimated.
Moreover, the regular presence of the ICRC and its constant contacts at all levels of power have a dissuasive effect: they help to forestall and contain such phenomena as forced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment. Working as it does in times of armed conflict, disturbances, tensions and other situations of violence within a country, the ICRC is well aware that its activities are part of a longer-term process, for although rapid improvements can certainly be made, its mere presence in places of detention does not mean that abuses will stop. If such phenomena are to be eradicated completely, the situation must return to normal and nongovernmental organizations and other components of civil society must be able to resume their regulatory functions, particularly those which enable the judicial system to work properly and arbitrary practices to be effectively curbed.
For further information please contact:
CENTRAL TRACING AGENCY AND PROTECTION DIVISION
INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS
19, avenue de la Paix - CH-1202 Geneva - Switzerland
Tel.: ++4122 734 6001 - Fax: ++4122 733 2057 - Web: http://www.icrc.org
INTERNATIONAL COMMITTEE OF THE RED CROSS/GENEVA