Hernán Reyes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Negotiating Prisoners' Rights: Conversation with Hernan Reyes, Medical Coordinator for Detention-Related Activities, International Committee of the Red Cross; 12/2/99 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Joining the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)

Was your first job with the International Committee of the Red Cross?

No, I worked as an obstetrician/gynecologist for six years. I got my training.

But human rights, international work was in your blood, as we've just discussed.

It turned out to be that way, but I was headed for a career in obstetrics and gynecology. I was named director of a hospital in Switzerland and finally decided not to take that job, because the ICRC, the International Committee of the Red Cross, asked me to stay on with them.

What were your first assignments? Did you start doing work with prisoners or did you have a different portfolio in the beginning in the Red Cross?

Well, being OB-GYN, I couldn't really do any medical work with the Red Cross because in the countries where we work there is no place for a gynecologist. They need a surgeon or a midwife, but not a gynecologist. So since I couldn't do anything in my line of work, I decided, why not do something completely different? Prison work. There's a lot of prison work to be done. And my first assignment was to have been Nicaragua, but what happened was that the head of the local Red Cross was a guy called Salvador Reyes, the same name as me. So they decided, "You can't go there, they're going to think you're part of a family, this is never going to work out, why don't we send you to Argentina?" This is 1982. And Argentina at the time covered not only Argentina proper but Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile [as well]. What they forgot is that with my Chilean background they should never have sent me to Argentina. So I ended up visiting prisoners in Argentina and in Chile, which I really shouldn't have done. There was never any problem. So that's the way I ended up doing political prisoners, this was in the early eighties when all the military dictatorships were around.

Before we talk about that, let's help people understand what exactly the International Committee of the Red Cross is, and what its mandate is. For a U.S. audience, of course, we mostly think of the Red Cross as a national organization dealing with disasters, but that's not really the main mandate of your committee, or is it?

Actually, the ICRC, International Committee of the Red Cross, is the founding body of what we call the Red Cross family -- the Red Cross Movement is the official name -- founded in 1863 in Geneva. It was founded to do something about the war wounded who were not taken care of in any systematic way. And this fellow from Geneva and a colleague from the Netherlands, Henry Dunant in the first case and J.H.C. Basting in the Netherlands, put together this concept, first of all of medical neutrality, and of caring for the non-combatant who is wounded and who should be protected. The most novel part was to have a convention between states whereby the states would respect this protection. And they created the International Committee of the Red Cross, and part of it was that each state that adhered to this Red Cross Movement and to the convention would have its own national society of Red Cross which would do the same thing, which would organize volunteers who would pick up the wounded in the war. That was the beginning. After a time, particularly after World War I, when there were so many volunteers in the American Red Cross, the League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies was created to use these volunteers and not to disband them. This was created in the United States, it's our sister organization to the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva. The Federation, now called Federation of Red Cross Societies, was created in the States, and they precisely organize relief to disasters, earthquakes, or natural disasters. That's why everybody has the impression that the American Red Cross is dealing with disasters, whereas we deal with man-made disasters, namely war.

And what this is really about is peoples and private organizations in different parts of the world concerned about the norms that we are going to live by as states deal with each other. This movement was an engine for new norms on these issues in international affairs, right?

Yes, it's called international humanitarian law. The Geneva Conventions form part of international humanitarian law, which regulates what can be done and what cannot be done in time of war or in time of warfare. As you know, there are now four Geneva Conventions, one of them on prisoners of war, which is the third one, one on shipwrecked people, one on war wounded, and possibly the most important one now is the fourth convention which is on civilians, how civilians should be treated in case of war.

When the main concern was countries at war, your mandate was a little clearer than it's become now in the present international environment where conflicts within states and not just between states become important.

The Geneva Conventions apply to what we call international war, but luckily all four of them have what we call Common Article Three, which has been said to be a "little Geneva Convention" on its own, which is the hard core of what has to be respected in any case. It says something to the effect that in cases of non-international war, which could be anything, which could be a civil war, which could be just internal troubles or just internal strife, there are certain basic principles that have to be respected. People should not be tortured, people should not be kidnapped, women and children, elderly persons should be respected particularly. And it is on that basis that the ICRC today works in most countries, because there are no longer any international wars going on all the time.

Next page: Visiting Prisoners

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