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

Page 9 of 9

Looking to the Future

In the beginning of our conversation you talked about the founding of the International Committee and the idealism and concerns that drove the founders of the International Committee, and then you talked about the actual work and the development of articles and protocols that define the norms. As you've worked at this business for a while now, do you see an improvement, that we're moving forward on the actual implementation of the norms and improvement of the condition of prisoners in most places?

It would be very difficult to generalize, but there have been improvements in many places. Of course, violence flares up again and again; we have to start back at square one in other places. But at least at my level, on the health, medical level, there have definitely been improvements. For example, we have developed relations with the World Health Organization, with the World Medical Association, to try to develop norms, new standards on hunger strikes, on prison related issues, on the treatment of tuberculosis in prisons, and to try to go forward and not just stay on a strictly Red Cross basis only doing visits. But trying to share with others and trying to develop other norms with other organizations as well, learning from our experience. In this case, for example, we have very good relations with the Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture. We were with them from the very beginning, actually giving them advice at their request on how to do visits when they had no idea. They were just beginning to visit and now they have become extremely professional, and we have close contacts with them.

Do you think in the future there will be less need for people doing the kind of work you're doing, or will there be more of a need?

The Red Cross used to be the only organization in the field doing prison work; now we have the European teams of the CPT visiting all forty-something countries of the Council of Europe. They're actually going to extend, possibly to the Mediterranean basin, possibly to Central Asia, they even have a clause which would allow them to visit worldwide. There's also the additional protocol to the UN Convention against Torture. There may in the future be an additional mechanism visiting worldwide. The Red Cross could very soon find itself one among many teams doing the same type of work. I just hope that by having so many teams, some governments do not use one team against the other, trying to get the best deal, so to say, the cheapest visit possible, and that professional standards are maintained, and that the visits are done by whoever does them in a professional way, not putting people in danger, and doing them the way we try to do them.

Do you think this philosophy of neutrality will continue in the future, that is, not over-identifying with the prisoners, while respecting their dignity and trying to further their interests, but at the same time not going public and in some ways deferring to the authorities in the prison?

Not going public is, as I said, an ICRC policy which the Europeans [of the Council of Europe] had as well; they haven't changed the policy, but in effect it has changed because in the European countries a tradition has developed whereby the countries now all voluntarily publish their reports. Any country that does not publish a report is seen as having something to hide. Now this would be excellent if it developed on a worldwide scale, of course it's not about to happen. As to neutrality, I remember one prisoner talking to another delegate, and the delegate was explaining that the ICRC is neutral, and he says, "Look, stop it with your neutrality, you see what's going on around here, you see what's going on in this prison, in this country, and you're visiting me. You're not neutral, you're with the victims," and in this sense he's right. We are with the victims, we aren't neutral in that sense. We are for the people who are suffering, who are being ill treated, to try to improve their conditions. The term neutrality anyway has changed very much since the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War; neutrality doesn't have the same meaning anymore.

Dr. Reyes, I regret to say our time is up, but thank you for this fascinating journey where we have seen how the young kid who read these books about prisons went on to study medicine and do this important work in the human rights field. Thank you very much for joining us.

Thank you very much.

And thank you very much for joining us for this Conversation with History.

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