Global Policy Forum

Iraq Scandal Reveals Red Cross Pressures


By Imogen Foulkes

May 15, 2004

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been in the spotlight this week, following the revelations about the abuse of Iraqis held in Abu Ghraib prison by coalition forces. The ICRC is the body officially mandated by the Geneva Conventions to visit prisoners of war to ensure they are being humanely treated. And the Red Cross had visited Abu Ghraib many times, it knew of the abuses, but only went public with its knowledge when forced to. Critics now accuse the Red Cross - widely regarded as the guardian of the Geneva Conventions - of being the last to mention that the conventions are being violated.

No comment

The ICRC can be a difficult assignment for journalists: Red Cross delegates are active in some of the most newsworthy parts of the world, but they have a policy of not talking about their work. When the first, shocking pictures of Iraqi prisoners appeared - naked and terrified in Abu Ghraib prison - my first reaction as Geneva correspondent was to call the ICRC.

"We can't comment on those pictures', came the reply. "But you've visited Abu Ghraib prison haven't you?" I asked. "We never discuss our prison visits."

It went on like this all week, more pictures were published - and still the Red Cross would not talk. Getting information out of the sphinx seemed a more likely possibility.

But the silence ended when the Red Cross' confidential report to the US government on conditions in Abu Ghraib was leaked to the media. Something close to panic broke out at Red Cross headquarters. This normally peaceful, elegant building, overlooking Lake Geneva and surrounded just now by spring flowers, became a hive of frantic communication.

The determinedly neutral organisation, invented after all in neutral Switzerland, was going to have to comment on a major political scandal. At a hastily organised press conference, visibly nervous ICRC officials were forced to confirm that they had documented a systematic pattern of abuse by US troops at the prison, abuse, the report said, "which was tantamount to torture".

Registering prisoners

So why keep quiet about it for so long? "We're not some dial-a-quote organisation," spokesman Florian Westphal said. "There are human rights groups who can publicly denounce abuses." Many people do confuse the Red Cross with groups like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch.

In fact, the organisation's real role is one my grandparents' generation would recognise. To them, the Red Cross sent messages saying a loved husband or brother was alive, but a prisoner of war, somewhere in Germany. And for prisoners, Red Cross delegates were the ones who brought food, a bar of soap perhaps, and best of all, a letter from home.

That is what the Red Cross does now too - in 2003, their delegates visited 468,000 prisoners of war and other detainees in more than 70 countries. So if you are a detainee in some hot, dusty, forgotten corner of the world, and the white jeep with the Red Cross on the side turns up, do not assume that your liberation has arrived. The Red Cross delegates will not spend time on the justice or otherwise of your imprisonment, but they will do their best to ensure you are not beaten, that you have food, water, and fresh air, and that your family knows where you are.

Red Cross workers insist that the policy of talking only to prison authorities about abuses they have witnessed is what opens the prison gates for them. Access is not easy, when the prison guards are often brutalised young men, scarcely out of their teens, who see no reason to behave humanely to prisoners they regard as enemies.

But journalists always want proof for their stories; it is all very well for the Red Cross to claim confidentiality works - but if they take that policy so far they will not even give us any examples, it is hard to believe them. And we do know that silence has led the organisation into some serious moral quandaries over the years - in World War II delegates knew about the Nazi death camps, but said nothing for fear of jeopardising their access to prisoners of war.

Subtle approach

I do wonder how people apparently motivated by their humanitarian convictions can bear to keep quiet in the face of such horrors.

Florian Westphal says: "I've come out of some awful places and I've thought 'God I just have to get what I've seen off my chest', but who would it have helped? Me for sure, but not the prisoners. "We did speak out over Bosnia and Rwanda - and it didn't help at all." Instead, he says, the Red Cross goes about improving the lives of prisoners in subtle ways. "I went to a prison where the inmates weren't being allowed any fresh air," he said. "So every time I visited I told the guards I needed the prisoners out in the yard so I could count them. It worked, they were let out, and I could seem them stretching, looking up to the sun."

That is the kind of professional satisfaction Red Cross workers can expect - no media limelight. They go public about their prison visits only when they think every last avenue of private persuasion has been exhausted, and they did not think they had reached that point with the United States and Abu Ghraib. There had even been some improvements, Florian Westphal said.

Media demands

Red Cross officials have been repeating the confidentiality policy like a mantra all week - to the intense frustration of journalists hungry for credible details about Abu Ghraib prison. But complete confidentiality will be almost impossible to maintain in high profile conflicts like Iraq.

And if the Red Cross does bow to pressure to talk, how will that affect its work in all those nasty little conflicts the media is not really interested in? Rebel militias holding hundreds of prisoners may have just seen the Red Cross on television, talking about bad prisons in Iraq.

That is what many ordinary ICRC delegates fear - not that they may lose a cosy, unscrutinised way of working, but that they may lose access to thousands of prisoners of war who desperately need help.

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