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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Establishing Trust

When you go to a particular country, you have two sets of negotiations, or maybe more. One is you have to negotiate and set terms with the authorities who are in charge of the prison, but with the other hand you have to establish the conditions by which the prisoners will trust you and tell you what you want to know and what is in their best interests to tell you.

Absolutely; it's on two completely different levels. The negotiations to actually get into a country of course are done on a very high level in Geneva between the office -- that's nowhere near where I am, I'm in the medical division -- the negotiations are done between the ICRC and the government that has to allow the ICRC in, and there are separate conditions, sine qua non conditions, without which we will not actually do visits in a country. On my level it is more to train the teams, especially the medical components of the team, on what to look for, how to look for it, how to not do harm when they are trying to do good. The idea is not to re-interrogate prisoners, the idea is to talk to them, to listen to them, to reestablish contact with their families, find out what the conditions are, find out if they have been tortured, and then put all this together and draw up a report to try to get betterment in all aspects.

So how do you or your teams go about establishing trust with prisoners?

It varies from one country to another. Some countries know about the Red Cross and are even expecting the Red Cross. They've heard about it, they've heard that the Red Cross is going to visit and it's obviously a bit easier. In some places they have no idea what the Red Cross is: Red Cross? Blue Cross? Outside organization? You have to first establish trust in the sense that [they trust that] what they say to you is not going to go to the director, and it's not going to go out to the press either. And you have to establish trust mainly by showing that you do come back to them, that you don't put them in danger, and that you are indeed there to help them either by advising them directly or counseling them or giving them some kind of medical counsel, actually on the spot, or perhaps ensuring that the improvements are made. Once they see that improvements are made, that there are no reprisals between this visit and the next visit, you get their trust. The first visit is always very difficult.

How do you overcome those difficulties in the first visit?

On the first visit you have to really explain what you can do and what you can't do, and never make any promises that you can't keep. You should be able to promise that you are coming back -- but even then I'm always wary, because you never know. It may be all of a sudden negotiations will break down and the people I promised to see again I cannot see because they are not going to let me into the country. When I say "me" I mean the teams, I don't necessarily mean myself. So it's always very delicate in these cases. But because the countries where we go are countries, if they have political prisoners it means something may be going on which is untoward and which of course the government may want to hide.

In preparation for this first visit, who will you have talked to before you actually come to the prison? What sort of research have you done? I would imagine that's important in winning over the prisoner in that first initial interview.

Again, it's at two different levels. The political negotiating is done by the ICRC headquarters and what we call the heads of delegation, who are on the spot, who actually negotiate at ministerial level or presidential level even, to try to obtain the minimum conditions for our teams to go in. On a lower level, in Geneva there is some preparatory work to be done, gather all the information we have on the conditions, we get information from many other NGOs and other organizations who work with prisoners and who don't necessarily go in, who can't go in, and they of course give us all their information. Then we prepare the visit, and each and every visit has to be prepared and our teams have to be briefed on what to expect so they know how much time to plan for a visit and how to go about a visit. A visit is very different in Afghanistan from South Africa from Uruguay. These three countries are completely different and the tactics will be different as well.

Is there often an interpreter with you as you do these? Or do you bring somebody with you who is part of your team who knows the language?

Ideally our delegates should know the language. We try to do that, for example, with the languages that are most common. In Latin America we always have used delegates who spoke Spanish or Portuguese, that was never a problem. We try more and more to have delegates who are Russian speaking when we work in the countries of the former Soviet Union, but in other countries, in Africa particularly, there are so many dialects that it's impossible. In that case we try to have someone on the team who comes with us, who is seen as being part of our team. We try not to use local people, and not to use, as far as possible, co-detainees, because you never know exactly who they might be.

When you do these interviews, are authorities from the prison present, or do you have private interviews?

That's one of the preconditions, interviews have to be have to be in private. And an interview in private means exactly that. But before that, imagine you're going into a prison, you're seeing dozens, possibly hundreds of prisoners, what we very often do first of all is explain to the group what we are doing and then cell by cell, in groups again, to break the ice, explain that we're going to look into living conditions, into food, into sanitary conditions, and then say we're also going to be having individual talks. "All of you who have," for example, "a medical problem or something specific they want to say, we shall be able to talk in private." In private means nobody there from the authorities, but it also means nobody there from the other prisoners, because we never know at the beginning what kind of internal hierarchy there may be and we don't want any coercion either from the authorities or from other prisoners.

In your view, do the prisoners see you as primarily a doctor or as primarily the representative of a humanitarian organization that might be able to help them, or is it both?

It depends. When you have very politicized, very sophisticated prisoners they see you more as a representative of this organization that gives them legitimacy in some cases. Even though we always say the Red Cross does not give any political status to anybody, we avoid using the term "political prisoner" because it may block the authorities in many cases. But of course these sophisticated political prisoners are very savvy and they know that we don't visit people who steal bicycles in Norway, for example. If we are in the country it's because something is going on. One the other hand, in other countries where they don't know much about the Red Cross, International Committee, International Humanitarian Law; they see us mainly as someone who's trying to help them, and in this case they would see me and my colleagues as physicians.

The individual interviews with prisoners are how long generally?

That depends. I can't imagine having an interview that would last less than twenty minutes; of course, some people say that's ridiculous, how can you talk only twenty minutes, it's much too short! But when you think you have maybe seven hundred prisoners to see in just a few days, and there are many other things to see besides the talks, you have to look into the health system, you have to look into the food, etc., you have to have an average. Of course, some people may need much more. In cases of torture you will take as much time as you'll need, all the while knowing that we're not there to provide therapy, we are just there to find out what happened, answer questions, provide whatever comfort we can. But I would say twenty minutes, half an hour, they very rarely go over. I have had interviews that lasted four hours in some cases, but that was very rare. That was really extremely rare.

Do you have a check-off list in your mind, or have you done this so much that you can move away from such a list whether you have it on paper or in your mind?

I tend to stay away from check-lists because first of all if you ask questions, the only thing you'll get is answers, and by making check-lists the problem is that the inexperienced physician who does a visit will stick to the check-list and tick them off and then not see that which is not on the check-list, which may be the most obvious problem. So I tend to stay away from check-lists, but of course in training it is useful to have some kind of scheme in the mind at least.

In this interview, at one level you're dealing with the prisoner on a generic level: What can this prisoner tell me about the situation here? But you obviously, as a physician you are also dealing on a very personal level, getting a sense of the person as a human being. How do you move between those two different formulations of the situation?

It depends on what the problem is. We cannot treat anybody, and I tend to tell our colleagues that the last thing they want to do is go into a cell with eighty people and say "I'm a Red Cross doctor, who wants to see the Red Cross doctor?" You're going to get 160 hands up in the air and they all want to see you because in a prison very often they do not trust the prison doctor. They may have adequate treatment, but they don't necessarily believe they have adequate treatment. So on the one hand you have people who actually need some kind of counseling; other people who have been tortured want to tell you about it either because they want to know for themselves what the effects are or because they want to rightly denounce it and say, "You should know about this, something should be done, and since you are here to visit us you should know something about this situation." It varies greatly. Some people you see as patients, some people you see as prisoners who represent other prisoners.

After the first interview you come back, do you bond with particular prisoners over time? I mean, do you make a point of seeing a particular prisoner who you saw on the first or second visit, on the third visit?

There's two levels of that as well. Those who you feel may have put themselves in danger, particularly on a first visit, by telling you things which you know the authorities would not want you to know, you obviously do register their identities so you can look them up next time and find out if anything happened. If anything untoward happened you of course try to do something about it. On a more personal level, there are prisoners who you would like to see again because they've had a medical problem, or just because you've had a good interview with them. You do tend to look people up, but all the while staying fair and trying to see as many people as you can and not have any favoritism in your visits.

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