12 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says the leak of its report on the abuse of detainees by U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq could threaten its access to prisons in other countries.
Parts of the 24-page document were published in "The Wall Street Journal" last week, and the report was released in its entirety by the newspaper on 10 May without the permission of the Red Cross. That makes it one of the only confidential ICRC documents to be made public since the Geneva-based agency was founded 145 years ago.
Director of Operations Pierre Krahenbuhl says speaking in public about the findings of such reports could cause authorities in other countries to close off detention centers to visits by the Red Cross.
"The preparation and submission of such reports is part of the ICRC's standard procedures in the field of its visits to prisoners worldwide," Krahenbuhl said. "They are strictly confidential and intended only for the authorities which they are presented to. Confidentiality is, in our experience, needed to establish meaningful working relations with the concerned authorities and to build trust with both the prisoners and the [detaining] authorities."
Krahenbuhl said the Red Cross breaks its rule on confidentiality only if serious human rights violations continue despite direct contacts with the detaining authorities. The other exception is when a government publishes part of a report presented to it by the ICRC but distorts its findings.
Some experts believe the Red Cross should break its policy of secrecy.
Above all, Krahenbuhl said, the Red Cross keeps the welfare of prisoners in mind.
"Confidentiality obviously also helps in obtaining access to prisoners worldwide and is, in that sense, essential to carry out meaningful work for the persons detained," Krahenbuhl said. "That is the reason why we are disturbed to see this [Iraq] report having been made public."
Workers for other human rights organizations say they are sometimes frustrated by the confidentiality policies of the Red Cross.
Groups like London-based Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch attempt to call attention to human rights abuses through their widely distributed public reports. Both groups regularly condemn countries for torture and rights abuses and have expressed regrets that the Red Cross doesn't publicize its findings on abuse.
Other experts also argue that the ICRC should break its policy of secrecy in cases like Rwanda, where the Red Cross had maintained silence about abuses during the months that preceded the genocide of 1994.
Krahenbuhl admits that keeping silent in such situations presents a moral dilemma for Red Cross investigators.
"It is for us a dilemma -- and we have experienced it and lived it elsewhere -- that there are moments when, yes, of course, as human beings, we would like to just stand up and speak out," Krahenbuhl said. "But we visit [more than] 400,000 detainees around the world [each year]. Some of them get nothing of the attention that is currently being discussed around Iraq. And we need to obtain and maintain access to these people. That is vital."
The ICRC has a stated mission of providing aid to needy people and serving as a guardian of the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. Krahenbuhl noted that ICRC investigators last year visited more than 460,000 detainees at nearly 2,000 detention facilities in 80 different countries.
"Visiting prisons and prisoners is at the very heart of the ICRC's humanitarian mission," Krahenbuhl said. "It is also one of the activities that is, from a human point of view, often the most challenging and at times, destabilizing, in our individual experience."
Krahenbuhl said ICRC delegates try to get access to all people who have been deprived of their liberty in situations of armed conflict or internal violence. He said Red Cross experts will carry out detailed and repeated visits to a detention facility in order to review how it functions and to ascertain the well-being of prisoners.
"They meet individually with the prisoners. They hold private talks -- in other words, talks during which no other witness is present to follow the conversation," Krahenbuhl said. "The visits then end with a formal talk with the detaining authority to share findings, concerns, and to make recommendations for improvements. These concerns and recommendations are then usually summarized in writing."
Krahenbuhl said the leaked report on Iraq was a summary of the ICRC's concerns about alleged abuses across Iraq that repeatedly were brought to the attention of military officials in the U.S.-led coalition last year but were not acted upon.
The report specifies that abuses at the Abu Ghurayb prison in Baghdad by U.S. military-intelligence teams appeared to be "systematic." Those intelligence teams include U.S. military personnel, as well as CIA agents and civilian interrogators who work under private defense contracts.