Crisis of confidence

By Caroline Moorehead

Financial Times

Published: June 19 2005

The first that Beatrice Megevand-Roggo knew about the leak was a call from The Wall Street Journal, late on the night of May 7 2004, when she was asleep in Geneva. A few days earlier CBS television had broadcast photographs of Iraqi prisoners being tortured and mocked by their US guards in Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Megevand-Roggo works for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva, and she and her staff had been visiting Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi prisons run by the Americans since the beginning of the occupation. The Wall Street Journal told her it was planning to publish the ICRC’s confidential report about these visits, leaked to it by an unnamed source, corroborating the scenes portrayed in the photographs. Had the ICRC in fact known all along, The Wall Street Journal asked, what was going on in Abu Ghraib? And if so, why hadn’t it spoken out?

Realising the delicacy of the ICRC position, Megevand-Roggo immediately called a meeting of all the most senior people in the Geneva headquarters. She then arranged a press conference that same day and prepared her position. It was not an easy one. Were the ICRC to confirm that it had known what was happening inside Abu Ghraib, it could be accused of complicity and a failure to live up to its mandate to protect prisoners. Were it to deny such knowledge, it would come across as incompetent. The press conference was, predictably, unpleasant. Megevand-Roggo, who is the senior ICRC official for Europe and the Americas, outlined the organisation’s position: the delegates had indeed known about the ill-treatment. But after strong protests to the Americans in the winter of 2003, this, she maintained, had stopped. She said she believed that the photographs of the pyramids of naked Iraqis and the mocking American soldiers were in fact at least six months old, but she couldn’t prove it.

No ICRC press conference had been better attended: journalists turned out representing media from all over the world. The most hostile proved to be the American reporters. How, they asked, could the ICRC possibly have stood by and done nothing? Did this not make a mockery of its position? A wave of critical articles appeared in the US press, fuelled, ICRC people believe, by pressure from Bush aide Alberto Gonzales (later to become US attorney general) and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, both known for their contempt for the Geneva Conventions and their animosity towards the ICRC. Some writers went as far as to speculate about the future of American financial support for the organisation. Others spoke of its “anti-American animus” over the US “war on terror”.

Soon after the Americans entered Iraq the ICRC had been given permission, as is their right under the Geneva Conventions, to send delegates to Baghdad. What they had heard about from prisoners during visits to Abu Ghraib and other jails had appalled them, and they had returned to Geneva to file strong complaints to Paul Bremer, in charge of the occupation, and Lt Gen Ricardo Sanchez, commander of the US forces in Iraq. Copies had gone to the Pentagon and to the British military. These reports detailed cases of naked Iraqi prisoners forced to simulate sex with each other, made to masturbate while wearing women’s underclothes and being photographed, and of dogs terrorising the men. There was one account of a man being bitten and another being sodomised with a chemical light (a phosphorous glow stick) or a broom handle. In their report, the ICRC delegates protested vehemently about the “hooding, handcuffing, beating, threatening” of prisoners and the way that they had been kept for days at a time in painful and humiliating positions.

Slightly to the ICRC’s surprise, the Americans had reacted well to its complaints. At a meeting in Washington in February 2004 - three months before the scandal broke - they had said they were appalled by the stories. They had agreed to hold an inquiry, arrest the soldiers responsible and remove those above them from their positions. It was not perfect; but, by the spring of 2004, the ICRC sincerely believed that the ill-treatment had ceased.

After the press conference the scandal faded, swept away by other news. Though a few people in the US administration continued to insist that the leak had come from within the ICRC, bent on discrediting the Americans, the ICRC is absolutely certain that it came from someone within the administration itself who deplored the US breach of the Geneva Conventions.

But then there was a second leak. This time it concerned Guantanamo, where the defence department said prisoners were “providing valuable information about terrorism” in an “environment that is stable, secure, safe and humane”. On November 30 2004, The New York Times published a report on Guantanamo, drawn on material gathered by the ICRC, who had been visiting the detainees since January 2002. Prisoners were revealed to have been stripped to their underwear, manacled hand and foot to a chair bolted to the ground, while strobe lights flashed and loud rap and rock music was played through speakers close to their ears.

Again, after the public outrage at the revelations had died down, there were attacks on the ICRC in the American press, but the ICRC is again certain that the leak had not come from its own people. However, even if one part of the American administration had misgivings about the Geneva Conventions and the ICRC (Gonzales once said in a memo that some Conventions provisions were “quaint”) and that international humanitarian law did not apply to the US global war on terror, it was clear that the president himself was determined that relations should not be soured. Earlier this year, the US committed itself to a further four years’ funding.

For the ICRC, however, something fundamental had taken place. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo highlighted for the first time not only the changing patterns of modern conflict and the ICRC’s difficulties when dealing with a western democracy, but the very nature and ambiguities of the ICRC’s work, and in particular the question of confidentiality. Like its profession of neutrality, the ICRC’s attachment to confidentiality is almost an article of faith. Confidentiality, the famous quid pro quo that allows the ICRC access to everything in return for publicising nothing, has been at the heart of their work for most of the past century. No other organisation has this pact with governments, and no other organisation has had such an impact on the lives of prisoners of war. The question raised by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo was simple: had confidentiality become obsolete in the face of modern warfare?

Though the first Geneva Conventions, codifying humanitarian principles in wartime and signed by 12 countries in Geneva in August 1864, had said a great deal about the conduct of war, it had said nothing in any detail about visiting prisoners held by opposing armies. The ICRC’s first visits to prisoner of war camps took place in the winter of 1914, on its own initiative and with the consent of the governments at war, to whom it sent detailed descriptions of the conditions in which the captives were being kept, down to the amount of soap issued and the width of their bunks. When the delegates discovered conditions they regarded as unacceptable, they said so, and something was usually done to improve them. Between 1914-1918, 41 delegates, all men and all Swiss, visited 524 prisoner of war and labour camps across Europe, North Africa, Russia and Japan.

The ICRC, international only in name, for it was an entirely Swiss organisation, had hoped that the Diplomatic Conference of 1929, summoned to expand the Conventions, would enshrine their initiative in law. When it failed, ICRC delegates simply continued to visit prisoners of war, acting on their own and under uncertain legal rights. It was not until 1949 that these prison visits were formally incorporated under Article 126 of the Third Conventions and Article 143 of the Fourth. Neither, however, laid down the precise conditions in which the visits were to take place, but this hardly mattered since the delegates had long since established their own routine. In keeping with the meticulous tradition of the organisation, delegates spoke to camp commanders, recorded information about prisoners, inspected every hut, latrine and infirmary and interviewed prisoners in private, so there would be no reprisals, in order to come up with “true insight into prisoners’ living conditions”. The reports then went to the governments, to be acted on but not published, though the ICRC reserved the right to publish a report in its entirety if part of it had been quoted out of context. It also reserved the right to make a public protest if violations were not attended to.

This pattern has remained in force, unchanged, to this day. In 2003, the latest full year for which figures are available, delegates visited 470,000 detainees in 80 countries; without these visits some of the prisoners might never have been identified, let alone visited. Other than the leaks over Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, what it had to say about the prisons is not public knowledge.

The matter of confidentiality, this cornerstone of their work, has a long and troubled history. All through the second world war, the ICRC performed with courage and imagination. When the war started, the organisation had 19 members of staff, lodged in a pretty villa on the edge of Lake Geneva. By the winter of 1944, there were 3,650, all Swiss - 2,000 of them unpaid volunteers, working in five separate buildings, dealing with relief, parcels, Red Cross messages and the exchange of letters. About 150 delegates were paying visits to prisoners of war in five continents. But on the Nazi extermination and concentration camps, their courage and imagination failed. At a meeting held in Geneva on October 14 1942, the 25 people who presided over the organisation voted not to go public with the knowledge they had about Auschwitz and the systematic murder of civilians, Jews, gypsies, political dissidents and intellectuals, on the grounds that Hitler might retaliate by denying them access to the allied prisoners in German hands. It was not actually in their mandate to protect civilians - a revision of the Geneva Conventions to include protection for civilians had only reached draft stage by the outbreak of war - so that, technically, they were not at fault. But at the end of the war, when this decision to stay silent became known, it provoked widespread criticism including talk of anti-Semitism, and even threatened the future of the organisation.

To this day, the ICRC professes regret for that decision, but the method of confidentiality continued. Wherever conflicts broke out, the Swiss delegates went to work. Then, in 1960, something happened that gave it all a new twist. Soon after the start of the Algerian war, on February 5 1955, Pierre Mendes-France, the French prime minister, agreed to allow ICRC delegates to visit Algerian prisoners, even if, as detainees in a war that was civil rather than international, their position was slightly ambiguous. In return the ICRC undertook to keep everything it discovered confidential. The first mission to Algeria took place between February 28 and April 18, and three Swiss delegates did the rounds of various camps, barracks, prisons and detention centres. Though the regime was spartan and the cells overcrowded, there was little to report. It was when they reached a transit camp in the old civilian prison of Azazga that delegates Pierre Gaillard and Jean-Louis de Chastenay discovered something unacceptable: electric shocks and water torture were being used during interrogation.

Over the next four years, ICRC confidential reports, made public only recently, told the same story. During the first days and weeks after capture, prisoners were being routinely tortured. They were burnt by cigarettes, given electric shocks to the genitals, beaten, suspended, manacled. From visit to visit, despite repeated confidential protests, very little changed. Improvements to living conditions, requested by ICRC delegates, were made; but the use of torture during interrogation continued. Gaillard is the only delegate from those years still alive today. Now in his 80s, he well remembers the way that the amount and degree of torture reflected the different phases of the war, intensifying during the Battle for Algiers and at times of major operations in the countryside, diminishing at moments of relative peace. “We certainly made it far harder for them to ‘disappear’ people,” he said. “But the torture went on, even if there were more efforts to conceal it.” Was he ever tempted to go public with what he knew? “No. We would never have been allowed back in. And the good we were doing was considerable.”

The seventh mission, in October and November 1959, was particularly grim. Prisoners were now terrified of reprisals, and begged the delegates to say nothing of what they had been told. One man they saw was covered in open wounds and sores from torture. A number of others had died “while trying to escape”. Talking to a colonel of police, the delegates were told: “The fight against terrorism necessitates certain forms of interrogation which are the only ones that will enable us to save lives and prevent further attacks.” The delegates wrote up their report and sent it to the ministry of defence in Paris, and to the military authorities in Algiers.

On January 5 1960, some three weeks later, the newspaper Le Monde published the report, almost in full, in detail. Other newspapers picked the story up and soon there were protests from all over Europe. None of this was, of course, news. By 1960, it was widely known that the French were torturing their prisoners in Algeria. Lawyers and journalists had been describing it for several years. What was new, however, was the authority that the ICRC report brought to it. By documenting it all so carefully, so dispassionately, it became impossible to deny.

When the ICRC delegates were again allowed back to Algeria - not until more than a year later - they found that they were now conducted around by a general rather than a colonel and that a commission had been set up by the French to oversee conditions in the prisons. Torture did not disappear immediately and they still heard reports of ill treatment. But something had changed: it was no longer acceptable. What was not known then, but has since been established by historians and journalists and the archivists at the ICRC, is the identity of the person who leaked the ICRC report. It came from a man inside the ministry of justice, a former member of the French resistance during the second world war, by the name of Gaston Gosselin. Gosselin had been caught by the Germans and deported to Dachau concentration camp.

The Biafra civil war in Nigeria between 1967 and 1970 changed many things in the humanitarian world - it was the first war to be seen widely on television - but it had particular relevance for the ICRC. A famine turned the organisation overnight from, in essence, a monitoring organisation overseeing the Geneva Conventions, into a relief agency delivering thousands of tons of food. When Nigeria’s blockade stopped the food from getting through, it forced the International Committee in Geneva to engage in a new world of humanitarian politics and manipulation, at which it was not adept. And, for some of its delegates at least, Biafra was the war in which the contradictions in their job, seeing everything and saying nothing, simply became too great.

One of the delegates sent to Biafra by the ICRC was a French doctor, Bernard Kouchner. Like many of those whose first experience of relief work was the starving children in Biafra’s camps, Kouchner was appalled by what he saw and soon became frustrated by the ban on speaking out imposed by Geneva. Kouchner had lost members of his family in the Holocaust and would later say that he was simply not prepared to condone a second complicity of silence. Returning on leave to Paris, he and another Biafra delegate sent an article to Le Monde entitled: “Two French doctors returning from Biafra bear witness.” To friends, Kouchner talked of setting up a sort of “anti-Red Cross”, where the “new humanitarians” could meet. Out of this was born the idea of sans frontierisme and medecins d’urgence which recognised the need some people felt to combine their medical assistance with bearing witness and putting pressure on those responsible for atrocities.

Others before him had found the ICRC code of secrecy hard, but it was Kouchner who defied the edict publicly. In December 1971, in Paris, he set up Medecins sans Frontieres. Making no promises about confidentiality, its delegates and doctors to this day combine relief with advocacy, accepting that the price for speaking out may be a refusal of access. Last month, for instance, MSF Holland published a report about 500 women who had been raped in Darfur by Sudanese government soldiers and police after fleeing local militia. Since then, MSF has found its activities blocked and impeded by an apparently immovable bureaucracy in Khartoum, and one of their staff was arrested. The ICRC, working in the same areas, has doubtless heard the same reports of rape. It has said nothing, but there is no corner of Darfur to which, in theory at least, it does not have access.

Soon after Biafra came two further significant leaks. The first happened in military-run Greece in 1967, when details emerged that could be known only to ICRC delegates about conditions in the jails. Over this, the ICRC did nothing. The next leak was official. In 1978 a carefully edited version of an ICRC report appeared in Iran, portraying conditions in the Shah’s prisons as good and humane. The ICRC quickly published its report in full, to show that they were not.

And, where there were no leaks, but no improvements of any kind had been made despite repeated confidential ICRC protests, the ICRC has sometimes felt the need to go public itself. Rare as these protests have been, they have been disappointingly ineffectual. Nowhere is this more true than in Israel, where since 1967 the ICRC has kept a permanent mission - its longest presence anywhere - and where, year after year, it has issued protests about the use of “moderate physical pressure” on detainees and the demolition of Palestinian homes.

”Public exposure,” says Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, “is only powerful if it suits the media and the political moment.” She cites the case of Rwanda, where in the first days of the genocide the ICRC put out repeated appeals, one more desperate in tone than the last and each one in turn ignored. What she did not say, but this is a point made repeatedly by other human rights organisations, is that the ICRC, with its rare public pronouncements, sets the record: from then on, their findings can be quoted and used by commissions, the UN and parliamentary or congressional investigations.

With its leaks the subject of wide publicity and controversy, and its public protests totally ignored, the ICRC has been forced to take stock. The world, it has been obliged to recognise, is simply not the place it was in 1864 when the representatives of 12 powerful nations undertook to bring a measure of humanity to warfare. The collapse of nation states, the rise of guerrilla warfare, the proliferation of weapons, the “war on terror” and the widespread anarchic disregard for civilian life, have changed the landscape of conflict. When the plenipotentiaries of Germany, France and Britain signed their names on the first Geneva Conventions, about 90 per cent of all casualties of war were soldiers; today more than 90 per cent are civilians. In the 150 separate wars between 1945 and 1995, more than 25 million people have died, with 50 million wounded. By the end of the 1960s, three people on average were being killed or maimed by a land-mine every hour.

To cope with all this, small, non-governmental organisations sprang up alongside the international agencies such as the World Food Programme or the UN High Commission for Refugees. The new NGOs were specialists in mine clearing, in the illnesses that come from acute malnutrition, in sanitation and in the delivery of food, and they grew bigger as the need for them increased. (In Afghanistan, soon after the Taliban left, there were more than 400 foreign funded organisations working in Kabul alone.) Advocacy organisations, such as Amnesty International, were set up to collect data on human rights violations and campaign against torture, arbitrary detention and unfair trials.

Since Bosnia, where the bitter ethnic wars that followed the collapse in 1991 of Yugoslavia led to the largest ever humanitarian effort, organisations have been competing for funds from donors who demand accountability in a way that they never did in the past. With this has come a new demand for standards and codes of behaviour for humanitarian workers, supported by the ICRC but, in practice, difficult to enforce. Evaluations, and evaluations of earlier evaluations, come fast one upon another, to be discussed, and then put to one side. In the wake of Rwanda, when the international community failed to save the lives of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, a great many studies were carried out into what went wrong, including a five-volume report funded by Danish aid that was widely regarded as a benchmark for peace enforcement. Last year an evaluation of these reports was published. None of this has prevented what agencies and the UN estimate to be 180,000 deaths in Darfur, still increasing at the rate of 10,000 a month.

To all this has to be added the new climate of danger in which the humanitarian workers are forced to live. For most of the 20th century, the famous red cross emblem ensured respect. Today, in many parts of the world, it has become a target for rebel soldiers and there are places where ICRC delegates travel only in unmarked cars. In Chechnya in 1996, six ICRC delegates were murdered in their beds; in Iraq in October 2003, a suicide bomber attacked the ICRC headquarters in Baghdad, killing 12 people.

What the story of Abu Ghraib and the leak brought home most strongly was the fact that photographs carry a weight that far exceeds anything that words can achieve. “Horrible things are going on all over the world and our delegates are seeing them - but without pictures, well, no one cares,” says Megevand-Roggo. “Also, of course, these were actually photos of it happening, and there hardly ever are any photographs of torture.” On March 18, shortly before the photographs appeared, Amnesty International had published a report on conditions in Iraqi jails, mentioning torture: it went virtually unnoticed.

Never have the humanitarian agencies been faced by so many difficulties and so many contradictions. Paradoxically, however, these uncertainties have allowed the ICRC to return to the clarity of its mandate, to examine the implications of its commitment to neutrality and confidentiality and decide that it is indeed valuable in a world of confusion and anarchy. In the spectrum across the humanitarian world, it is essential to have at least one organisation getting access to the worst places, even if the most it can do is indicate to other organisations something of what it knows. For Eric Prokosch, for many years running the campaign against torture at Amnesty International, the fact that the ICRC gets access remains crucial: “It prevents prisoners from disappearing. We know that. It is what it does behind the scenes, what we do not hear about, that is so important, the confidential meetings, the protests, the reports.”

The debacle over Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo has also forced a historically secretive organisation further in the direction of openness and accountability. “In the past,” says Pierre Kraehenbuehl, director of operations, “we used to say, ‘trust us, we are doing our job.’ Now we have to demonstrate that what we are doing achieves results. It obliges us to prove that we are effective on our own terms, without watering things down.”

One former delegate, Pierre Gassmann, would like to see the organisation move even more clearly in the direction of confidentiality and focus only on the things it does best - the prison visiting, the dissemination and development of international humanitarian law - and leave the rest, such as the delivery of food, to other organisations. Its “added value”, as he sees it, is in the confidentiality and access that the ICRC has enjoyed for almost a century.

Pierre Gaillard is blunter. “Of course it would be easier for us to tell the press what we find: there would be immediate results. But in the long term, we would all be the losers; it would be the end of the ICRC as we know it, and it would be terrible for prisoners all over the world.”