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The Red Cross/Red Crescent in prisons …

(COMMON LAW) WHICH ROLE FOR NATIONAL SOCIETIES?
From: “10TH MEDITERRANEAN CONFERENCE” ATHENS, 27 – 31 MARCH 2007

Mr Chairman, distinguished delegates, dear friends,

If during the last centuries living conditions have dramatically improved and human beings have conquered their rights everywhere in our region, this has not happened in detention centres. Both in war and peace situations, both in developing and “developed” countries or in those countries claiming to practice, defend and export human rights, too often prisoners are treated without any respect for their fundamental human rights. If we make a comparison between contemporary times and the Middle Age, we can see that the living condition of detainees is the only reality that has almost not changed ever since. In too many modern democracies, in too many countries, detention systems are not at the level of civilization they should be nowadays.

Traditionally, jails are conceived and structured as a form of punishment, and are normally associated to violence. Overcrowded cells, promiscuity, situations of violence and inhuman conditions of life – marking people’s life forever – are regularly reported in Italy as well as in many other countries in the Mediterranean and in the rest of the world. I remember that we were discussing about that with Dr. Javornik and our Croatian friends in Cavtat, Croatia, last year, and I am very happy to be here together today, to stress the need for a stronger Red Cross and Red Crescent commitment in times of peace.

Too often internal codes of conduct are based on the “law of the strongest”, in which it is the most powerful or criminal one to rule (and this is both valid in the relations between warders and detainees and in the relations between detainees and detainees). Too often those who enter detention centres for minor crimes, such as drug users, happen to know what real violence is into these centres, and come out of them as criminals. These conditions go against our Fundamental Principle of Humanity. Restriction of freedom should not justify any oppressive and brutal treatment, and punishment should consist in deprivation of freedom, not in the violation of fundamental human rights. Violence always brings violence.

Our mission is not to judge, our mission is to assist vulnerable people, no matter what the reasons of their vulnerability are. Our mission is to ensure the protection of human rights, to bring Humanity into detention centres and to act according our Fundamental Principles. The individual and his fundamental rights have to stand at the centre of our activities and of our advocacy actions.
To put it into practice, a stronger commitment and a more active role of National Societies when referring to detention centres is needed in times of peace. Not only in the interests of detainees, but in the interest of Governments and civil societies, to which detainees return after having served their sentence.

In our capacity of auxiliary to the Public Authorities, we, as Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, are not supposed to ask ourselves if a particular law is good or bad. We have to respect and follow our national laws. But we can discuss them with our Authorities. We even have the possibility, the moral strength – sometimes the duty – to rise our voice, should our Governments violate the set of international and national Laws regulating human rights. Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies must act according the Fundamental Principle of Neutrality, but shall not be neutral in front of humanitarian needs, discrimination, violence and stigma. It is our Strategy 2010 to say that Activity in favour of the most vulnerable ones and Advocacy on their behalf shall always go together.

The Italian Red Cross has already gone public, and hopes that other National Societies will do the same, when basic human rights are violated. We did that in Lampedusa, where thousands of irregular migrants get every year in the hope of a better future, and are kept detained into unsafe shelters in dangerous health conditions. And I must assure you that living conditions in the transit centre of Lampedusa have improved since then, as well as in other centres for irregular migrants across Italy. I had the honour to accompany ICRC President Prof. Jakob Kellenberger during his visit to the Italian Red Cross run Centre for irregular migrants in Ponte Galeria, at the outskirts of Rome, and to show him how Police can not trespass a door with a Red Cross emblem, giving access to the centre.

In order to adapt to different realities, National Societies could engage themselves in different ways. If on the one hand, each of us should find his way to access detention centres and to humanize them with – for instance – support or recreational activities for target groups, on the other hand, we could all advocate for a more relevant use of alternative forms of treatment and punishment.

If a stronger presence of Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers and staff into detention centres is a deterrent to inhuman treatment per se, our volunteers and staff should in fact not limit themselves to this presence. In specific cases in which the offence is not particularly serious, or with particular categories of detainees such as minors, drug users, or people being sentenced to house arrests, trained volunteers and staff could play a key role as social workers and tutors, as it happens inside and outside more and more juvenile detention centres around Italy, as Nicola will show us during his presentation, and as it happens with those drug users who are sentenced for less than 4 years, and can have their term converted into therapeutic treatment if demonstrate a real willingness to quit. (Segue alla pagina successiva >>)

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