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A human presence where inhumanity rules

ICRC delegates visited 350,000 prisoners around the world last year


Torture is still rife around the world, and Red Cross delegates have to deal with it on a daily basis. But they refuse to name the guilty countries.

Wednesday is International Day Against Torture, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been shedding light on what its workers in the field do to uncover the murky practices that take place in prisons, camps, police stations - anywhere, in fact, where people are held in detention.

Every day, an ICRC delegate somewhere in the world is faced with the reality of torture. Often he or she is the only redress or support a victim of torture has. Being "registered" by the ICRC is the best guarantee against disappearance a prisoner will receive.

Even if the methods used have evolved, the reasons for carrying out torture are the same as ever: "To make people talk or to shut people up," says Hernan Reyes, an ICRC doctor who has been visiting prisoners for 20 years.

"Ticking bomb" alibi

There have been suggestions, especially since September 11, that torture can be justified if it prevents terrorist attacks. It is what the Red Cross calls the "ticking bomb" alibi.

Many human rights groups say there has been a growing trend for countries to use the global war on terrorism as a pretext for cracking down on domestic dissidence, and to legitimise torture in the name of extracting information.

The ICRC says that while torture for "information" exists, it is more often used for intimidation, incrimination and indoctrination.

"Many governments have a lot to learn. In the short-term, torture may get you what you want. But in the long-term it devastates society, fosters hate and kills peace," Bonard says.

No organisation devotes as much energy to tackling the effects of torture as the ICRC. But it is realistic about what it can achieve.

"Our experience shows that we are talking about containment rather than eradication. Torture will always be there," says Paul Bonard, deputy head of the ICRC's protection division.

However, the ICRC says its visits can reduce the incidence of torture.

No naming and shaming

ICRC delegates visited 350,000 prisoners around the world last year. The Geneva-based organisation says it is impossible to give statistics regarding how many had been tortured, but officials believe the figure could be as high as 90 per cent.

They say ICRC delegates have visited detainees in 72 "contexts" - countries or regions not under government control. Some 15 to 20 countries have refused Red Cross visits.

Even if the ICRC uncovers evidence of torture, it refuses to "name and shame" the countries responsible, leaving the finger-pointing to other organisations.

"Ours is a complementary approach. There is a need for denunciation, because it creates pressure. But there is also a need to have a presence," Bonard told swissinfo.

The ICRC will criticise a guilty government in private, but will not do so publicly for fear of jeopardising visits to detainees.

Nelson Mandela, once the recipient of Red Cross visits on Robben Island, said it was not so much what the ICRC did that mattered, but the evil it prevented.

The ICRC says access - and in particular private and confidential access - is paramount, even if it gives guilty governments a façade of respectability. Visits from the Red Cross, the organisation adds, offer victims of torture "a human presence where inhumanity rules".

"It's not clear that ICRC visits have a tangible effect on the incidence of torture. But they do have an impact on the people," says Reyes, the ICRC's medical coordinator for detention-related activities.

Psychological impact

It is up to the Red Cross teams - which ideally include both a doctor and a lawyer - to offer not just empathy and counselling to detainees, but also to carefully document cases of ill-treatment.

ICRC officials say torture is sometimes carried out by a sadistic rogue prison officer, while in other instances it is a systematic government policy.

There is no ICRC definition of torture, and no boxes to tick on a checklist - delegates simply describe what they see, and relay what they are told.

Based on their findings, the Red Cross teams can establish why torture is being carried out, and then devise ways to combat it. One way is to disseminate basic humanitarian rules to police and soldiers, or to lobby governments to adopt legislation that would outlaw torture.

Much more is known today about the effects of torture than 20 or 30 years ago. Nowadays, we realise the psychological effects physical torture can have - and we take psychological torture much more seriously.

A major step in this direction was the Istanbul Protocol, drawn up by the non-governmental organisation, Physicians for Human Rights, and adopted as an official United Nations document three years ago. It is, in effect, a manual on investigating and documenting torture.

This landmark document was the first to recognise that psychological torture exists and is just as important as physical torture. It also pointed out that inconsistencies in victims' stories did not mean they were lying: it was a normal psychological consequence of such a traumatic experience.

"If a government is really serious about tackling torture, this is the way to go about it," Reyes says.

by Roy Probert

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