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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Visiting Prisoners

In your work you look at the places where people are incarcerated for primarily political reasons, as opposed to just criminal acts within the society in which they live.

Yes. The ICRC, among its many other activities, visits prisoners in international wars. I visited POWs in Ethiopia, in Somalia, in Iran, in Iraq, in China and Vietnam, and in other places. Also, by extension, as we said, [prisoners] in internal wars, political prisoners. But also more recently, in places that are no longer really in a state of war, but have had some sort of trouble. For example in Transcaucasia we had the separatist Abkhazia movement years ago, which hasn't flared up now, but that was the reason for us being in the Republic of Georgia and visiting prisoners in the Republic of Georgia and in many other countries as well.

A few minutes ago you were saying you started in Argentina and neighboring countries. How many countries do you visit these days in a particular year, first the Red Cross, then you personally?

Last year the Red Cross visited something like two hundred thousand prisoners in forty contexts, not necessarily countries, but contexts, because you may have different delegations in a different country, which makes two contexts for one country. So something like forty countries. I myself have visited, over the fifteen years I have worked for the ICRC, something like thirty countries on all continents.

You are bringing to these encounters in the prisons two sets of values, right? One is as a medical doctor and the other is the set of evolving international norms about how prisoners are to be treated. Is there a contradiction between these two sets of standards as you do your work, or are they naturally reconcilable?

It's not me who brings them in; we have teams, we have delegations in the countries and we have doctors participating in the business in these countries. My job is to have a part in the training of these people we send out who actually stay in the field for six months or possibly a year. The message which I give to our doctors and nurses when they go out is to try to obtain conduct which is acceptable for these prisoners. "Acceptable" is possibly not a good word because who are we to accept? There are norms around, there are many norms issued by the United Nations, by the Council of Europe, by certain regional treaties, and so what we try to do is to obtain proper treatment for these prisoners according to local standards. Of course, when we go to a prison in sub-Saharan Africa we will not ask for the same conditions we would ask for in the Middle East or in Europe or in Latin America, so we take the local standard and try to get the best treatment possible with local standards.

What sort of general conditions are you looking for as a team goes to a particular country?

First of all, physical and psychological integrity. First of all, that people do not "disappear," are not just executed, are not kidnapped -- don't "disappear," as we say. And if indeed they are in prison, that they are treated correctly. We understand that there may be circumstances where people are arrested, may have to be interrogated, but they should be respected, as we said, according to, at the very least, this hard core of minimum standards which say that people should not be mistreated, should not be tortured, and that prisoners have certain rights. This is something which is sometimes difficult to have accepted by the people who keep them. I remember one prison director who said his prisoners had no rights, they only had obligations. And of course this is wrong, they do have rights.

In an area such as torture, which is a tool of the state to force prisoners to say things, to change their behavior, what is the kind of evidence you look for to prove or disprove whether torture has occurred?

There is no excuse for torture. Torture is always illegal, it's something which we really have to stress, there's no excuse for torture. We often have to come up with arguments against people who say, "Yes, but you know these people may have planted a bomb, in this case we have to get the information out of them and torture is justified." Torture is never justified, first thing. We always rely on the testimonies -- "testimony" is perhaps not a good word because it has a judicial connotation -- we rely on the talks in private we have with prisoners. That's one of the conditions. We have to be able to talk to people in private, find out what their stories are. I tell our doctors, don't just look for physical evidence, because it's a mistake. If you look only for physical evidence you're telling the authorities that if there are no scars visible there hasn't been any torture, and that of course is wrong. So I want people to rely more on what the converging testimonies give us, on the situation and what state these people are in, and then to draw up a document explaining to the government that this is a totally illegal way to interrogate people and they should not exercise torture in any way.

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