In an international armed conflict, the Geneva Conventions give the ICRC the right to visit detainees – both prisoners of war and civilians protected by the Third and Fourth Geneva Convention. In other situations, the authorization of authorities is required.

Our aims

Every day people are detained and exposed to danger. They may lose contact with their families or be subjected to inhumane living conditions, including inadequate food, water and health services. The ICRC aims to secure humane treatment and conditions of detention for all detainees, regardless of the reasons for their arrest and detention. We also seek to alleviate the suffering of their families, particularly by restoring communication between detainees and their relatives.

We endeavour to:

  • prevent torture and other forms of ill-treatment;
  • prevent and resolve disappearances;
  • improve conditions of detention (e.g. as regards food, water and health services);
  • restore and maintain family contacts;
  • ensure respect for legal safeguards.

In some cases, the ICRC also supports former detainees, facilitating their return to society.

We have been helping detainees since 1870, traditionally focusing on people held in connection with armed conflict and other situations of violence. Wherever we can, we also visit people detained for other reasons, in both criminal and administrative detention, if doing so could improve their treatment and the conditions under which they are being held. Our work includes visiting detainees under the jurisdiction of international courts and tribunals, common law detainees, and migrants.

Our approach

Our detention-related work is based upon a comprehensive assessment of the situation both inside and outside places of detention. This is facilitated by constructive dialogue with the detaining authorities and by visits to detainees.

In order for the ICRC to carry out detention visits, we must be given:

  • access to all detainees within its field of interest;
  • access to all premises and facilities used by and for the detainees;
  • authorization to repeat its visits;
  • the possibility to speak freely and in private with the detainees of its choice;
  • assurance that the authorities will provide the ICRC with a list of all detainees within its field of interest or authorize it to compile such a list.

A subsequent analysis of the information gathered enables the ICRC to identify the main risks faced by the detainees and other factors influencing their situation, including the challenges that confront the detaining authorities in attempting to address humanitarian concerns.

Our action

The ICRC works with the detaining authorities and expects them to take the necessary steps to ensure humane treatment and conditions of detention. We therefore maintain a confidential dialogue with them concerning our findings, relevant national and international standards, and the action and resources required to improve the situation of detainees.

On the basis of our assessment and analysis of each situation, the ICRC develops a specific strategy to meet the needs of the detainees most effectively. The strategy may include ICRC action in relation to individual detainees, facilities, organizations and regulatory frameworks, plus material or technical activities aimed at meeting humanitarian needs. As work progresses, we monitor and amend our strategy to ensure that our actions have a tangible impact on the situation of the detainees.