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Protecting Torture: The Red Cross' Deadly Silence

By: 
Adam Hanieh, Hazem Jamjoum, Rafeef Ziadah
Date Published: 
May 01, 2005
    By promising confidentiality to the occupying and imprisoning powers the International Committee of the Red Cross monitors the fate of prisoners of war that no other organization can reach — from Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-ray, to Abu Ghraib and even the many Israeli detention centers in occupied Palestine. Here, Rafeef Ziadah questions whether the ICRC’s monitoring efforts help prisoners or protect those who violate prisoners’ human rights.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was founded in 1863 to help the wounded and other victims of war. In the Geneva Conventions the ICRC is given exclusive rights to investigate prison conditions in war situations. In return for the ability to visit prisons and submitting reports to governments, ICRC officials promise confidentiality to the imprisoning forces. Delegates trained at headquarters in Geneva are drilled in confidentiality from day one — it is almost a mantra: “Talk about what you do, not what you see.” Despite criticism of its confidentiality policies regarding abuse and torture, the ICRC insists that this is the most effective way to help prisoners.

ICRC delegates visit thousands of prisoners around the world every year, often in countries where any outside scrutiny is rare and unwelcome. But it is because the ICRC promises confidentiality that it is allowed access to places that no other organization can reach. In Guantanamo Bay’s Camp X-ray, Abu Ghraib and the many Israeli detention centers this commitment to secrecy applies.

“For us the priority is to have access,” ICRC spokesman Darcy Christen told BBC News Online. If delegates witness mistreatment, they hold what the ICRC describes as “comprehensive dialogue” with the detaining authority, and make recommendations. For example, whatever the ICRC recommends about the open cages erected in camp X-ray to house the prisoners, they will be discussed only with the camp commander.

Closed-door

Hernán Reyes MD for the ICRC Medical Division explains “If the prisoners tell the delegates that they have been ill-treated, the ICRC does its best to ascertain the facts and draw up a complete file, in order to notify the relevant authorities and insist that they put an end to such practices.” Reyes goes on to say “when feasible, the doctor examines each case individually and also attempts to perceive the ill-treatment as a collective phenomenon that must be understood and discussed with the authorities in its entirety.” Practically what this means is that the ICRC makes closed-door consultations with the occupying or imprisoning forces themselves, in effect politely asking the torturers to stop their torture while promising not to tell the world what they know.

Pierre Kraehenbuehl, ICRC director of operations, explains that the neutral agency almost always uses confidential discussions because they achieve results and allow the ICRC to maintain access where it feels most needed — to the prisoners in warfare. “It is important that someone comes into these places of detention and tries to work concretely on improving their situation and not leaving them to face such a situation alone,” he adds.

But the entire purpose of having access to prisoners is to guarantee that they are being treated humanely according to Geneva Conventions. If the ICRC officials are reporting on these conditions confidentially and the authorities are not responding, the ICRC’s access to prisoners actually works against their mandate. The occupying authorities can claim that the prisoners are being visited by the ICRC and that no one need worry. These visits can be seen as a way for detaining powers to claim legitimacy — that the ICRC had visited these sites and given its stamp of approval.

Nada Doumani, ICRC spokesperson in the Middle East maintains that confidentiality “can have a better impact by maintaining good working relationships with authorities, definitely not to ‘protect’ these authorities but for a better protection of those in need.” Unfortunately, while the ICRC is trying to maintain “good working relations with authorities” prisoners are continuing to be tortured and mistreated.

Abu Ghraib

Reports of torture and mistreatment have been coming out of US-run Iraqi prisons ever since the beginning of the US occupation. These reports have been widely corroborated by human rights organizations, journalists and Iraqis themselves. With the release of the photographs from Abu Ghraib, US and British governments were quick to condemn the acts of torture, calling them ‘disgusting’ and promising investigations and punishment of the soldiers involved.

While the public revelations of torture were breaking in the US media, it became clear that the ICRC had been aware of US prison practices but had chosen to remain silent. The Wall Street Journal released excerpts of a January 2004 ICRC report on the conditions of Iraqi prisons, much to the chagrin of the ICRC. This report indicated that the torture and abuse of prisoners was well known to the ICRC, but due to their confidentiality practices they chose to only complain privately to the American officials.

The ICRC explained that the leaked report was a summary of its repeated attempts from March to November 2003 to get US officials to stop abuses. The leaked report itself states: “Since the beginning of the conflict, the ICRC has regularly brought its concerns to the attention of the Coalition Forces. The observations in the present report are consistent with those made earlier on several occasions orally and in writing to the Coalition Forces throughout 2003.”

This proves that the US occupation forces were not responding to the ICRC’s “confidential” approach. Yet, the US government did take action when the pictures became public. The Pentagon launched five separate investigations into interrogation practices at Abu Ghraib only after a US soldier reported incidents to his military superiors on January 13, 2004.

Why did the occupying forces not act upon the ICRC report and only become interested in the matter once it was made public? According to US General John Abizaid, the ICRC’s complaints and recommendations may not have reached top brass. “For example, the ICRC report of February 2004, I first saw in May,” Abizaid told a Congressional hearing, “I won’t make any excuses for it, Senator. I’ll just say that we don’t all see them. Sometimes it works at a lower level. Sometimes commanders at the lowest level get the report.”

“We abide by our policy of confidentiality…and we reserve our right to publish our findings when we deem it necessary and precisely in the best interest of people in need of protection,” maintains ICRC Middle east spokesperson Nada Doumani. This can only lead to the question — when does the ICRC deem it necessary? Was and is it not necessary in Iraq, Palestine, and Guantanamo Bay? Was it not in the best interest of the Abu Ghraib prisoners that the ICRC go public, especially after it became obvious that the occupying forces were not responding to their calls for change?

How much abuse would the ICRC have saved Iraqi prisoners if it had gone public earlier? A BBC report, “US acts after Iraq prisoner abuse” hinted that the US became serious about rigorously pursuing internal investigations only after the CBS broadcast. If the pictures had never surfaced, the ICRC would still be writing confidential — and diligently ignored — reports to the US authorities.

Palestinian prisoners

Similar strategies of imprisonment and torture witnessed in Iraq are practiced by a different occupying power in the region. The patterns of arrest, detention and torture evolving under the US occupation of Iraq resemble those employed by the Israeli military, police and secret service against the civilian population in occupied Palestine. For the more than 8000 Palestinian political prisoners currently in Israeli detention the stories coming out of Iraq are all too familiar.

The worsening situation of Palestinian prisoners and detainees has been widely documented by many of the Palestinian human rights organizations as well as international and UN bodies. Israel continues to practice torture and other forms of mistreatment against Palestinian detainees including severe beatings, tying prisoners in painful and contorted positions for long periods of time, psychological abuse, long periods of solitary confinement, and pressure to collaborate with the occupying forces. Inside Israeli prisons, Palestinian prisoners frequently report attacks by prison guards including the firing of tear gas inside prisoner’s cells, beatings, and the denial of food and medical treatment. Women prisoners report that they have been stripped naked by prison guards and shackled spread-eagled to prison beds in solitary confinement.

Despite these grave violations of prisoner rights, the ICRC mission in the area only carries out visits to visit Palestinian prisoners in central Israeli prisons in Occupied Palestine every six months. The ICRC has failed to adequately address the concerns of Palestinian prisoners during their visits, including the provision of urgently needed clothes, shoes and other personal needs.

It is understandable that Israel places very real structural obstacles in front of the work of the ICRC. However, it also seems that the ICRC has preferred to quietly accept considerable and increasing violations of the rights of prisoners without taking any meaningful action in order to maintain “good working relations with the authorities” and to “maintain access.”

Prisoners’ Families

April 17th is the International Day in Solidarity with Palestinian Political Prisoners. It is marked by demonstrations through out the Occupied Territories with families demanding the release of prisoners. Many of these demonstrations take place outside the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Palestinian Prisoner’s Family Committees are challenging the actions of the ICRC in the occupied territories. In most Palestinian cities, weekly vigils are held outside ICRC offices urging the ICRC to fully investigate the conditions of Palestinian prisoners.

There are very specific demands and procedural matters that the family committees insist on. For example, the visiting procedures of the ICRC to Israeli prisons are extremely problematic. Palestinian prisoners as well as prisoner support organizations report that the ICRC has accepted Israeli restrictions on which prisoners they can visit. Furthermore, the ICRC visits take place in official ‘visiting areas’ and do not include any kind of monitoring of the conditions inside the prisons and detention centers as a whole. The family committees demand that ICRC follow the procedure of conducting walk-throughs of the general prison areas as it would be a simple and effective way of placing pressure on the Israeli prison administration to improve the conditions in these prisons.

In addition, the family committees of Palestinian prisoners have demanded the following actions from the ICRC mission in Palestine and solidarity activists can support their campaign by also bringing these demands to the ICRC:

    • To take effective and public action to pressure Israel to open the secret prison Facility 1391 to representatives of the ICRC and Palestinian lawyers
    • To urgently increase the frequency of visits by the ICRC to Israeli prisons
    • To insist that visits by ICRC staff to Israeli prisons also include the provision of urgently needed items such as clothes, underwear, shoes, sanitary products and educational materials
    • To pressure Israel to allow unobstructed family visits by Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza Strip to their relatives in Israeli jails. Most importantly, these visits should take place unobstructed by glass or other barriers
    • To increase the visibility of the work of the ICRC to the Palestinian public, in particular the actions the ICRC carries out around the above measures. This should be done in much closer coordination with Palestinian human rights organizations
    • That sick and injured prisoners are provided with adequate and appropriate medical treatment

For the Palestine Solidarity Movement in North America the issue of Palestinian political prisoners is often sidelined in our work, although on the ground it is one of the most important struggles. It is time that we integrate political prisoner solidarity into our overall Palestine solidarity work. Mounting an international campaign calling on the ICRC to publicize conditions of Palestinian prisoners is an effective way to support the family committees of Palestinian prisoners.

The Sumoud Political Prisoner Solidarity Group based in Toronto is organizing a number of upcoming actions that you can find out more about at http://sumoud.tao.ca. April 11 will be an International call-in and fax day to central ICRC missions (the Sumoud website will have sample letters and talking points). There will also be a speaking tour of Palestinian ex-political prisoners in North America to raise awareness around Palestinian political prisoners and connect their struggles with struggles against prisons in North America. The tour is starting on Palestinian Land Day, March 31, and ending on April 17, Palestinian Political Prisoners Day. Finally, there is a call for an international day of action on April 17th with demonstrations taking place outside of ICRC offices world-wide to send a clear message to the ICRC that Palestinian Political prisoners do not stand alone. All cities are urged to send delegations and hold demonstrations on that day.

Adam Hanieh, Hazem Jamjoum, and Rafeef Ziadah are active in a variety of groups in Toronto, Canada, including Al Awda (Toronto), Sumoud Political Prisoners Group, the Arab Students Collective (University of Toronto), and the Coalition Against Israeli Apartheid.