Criticism of the ICRC emerged shortly after several pictures and video images detailing sexual abuse, torture and humiliation of Iraqi detainees at the hands of US troops appeared in the media. 

There have been unconfirmed reports that there are stirrings within the organisation in light of the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal.

On 17 May, Christophe Girod, a 17-year veteran of the ICRC and current head of the relief organisation's Washington office, resigned amid reports that he had grown dissatisfied with the US response to his calls for immediate action in US-run Iraqi prisons.

Girod denied that his resignation comes on the heels of the heat the ICRC is facing. "I resigned from the ICRC nearly three months ago for purely personal reasons," Girod explained in a statement released to the media.

Nevertheless, his resignation at the height of the prisoner abuse and torture scandal currently rocking the Bush administration has fuelled speculation that there are quarters dissatisfied with the ICRC's handling of the affair.

The ICRC's mandated policy of neutrality and secretive dialogue with governing bodies has come under question.

Confidentiality no more?

"I think there is a call to abandon confidentiality. It's coming from people outside the ICRC, some of whom don't understand the problems and legalities surrounding the Red Cross. But it is also coming from inside the organisation," Olivia Ward, a Toronto Star journalist who has researched and written about the ICRC and abuses at Abu Ghraib, told Aljazeera.net.

Ward believes there may be more to Girod's resignation than meets the eye.

No charges have been brought
against Guantanamo detainees

"He was the one who spoke out about people being held in Guantanamo Bay without any legal status. I would be very surprised if his decision had nothing to with what's happening in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan." 

In October 2003, Girod openly criticised the Bush administration's handling of detainees at Guantanamo Bay which he claimed had been turned into "an investigation centre, not a detention centre".

Girod's outburst was considered unprecedented for the ICRC and prompted US officials to lodge a complaint with the international relief organisation.

Widespread in Iraq?

Critics allege that the ICRC knew of Iraqi prisoner abuse and torture not only in Abu Ghraib prison, but throughout Iraq and as early as a few weeks after the fall of Baghdad on 9 April 2003.

Although the ICRC conducted a wide-scale investigation of conditions at US-run Iraqi detention facilities and camps in January 2004, and presented a report to occupation forces the following month, its findings were never made public.

The report also included "observations and recommendations from ICRC visits [to Iraq] that took place between March and November 2003".

The CBS programme's pictures 
embarassed the White House

In April, CBS's 60 Minutes II broadcast the first pictures of often naked Iraqis forced to perform lewd acts with US military personnel depicted in a jovial, amused mood.

The broadcast created a backlash in the US, with some commentators asking why abuse was allowed to thrive for so long.

In early May, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) released major excerpts of the January 2004 report, much to the chagrin of the ICRC.

ICRC annoyed

"I would like to begin by underlining that the report was made available to the public without the consent of ICRC. The preparation and submission of such reports is part of the ICRC's standard procedures in the field of its visits to prisoners worldwide," ICRC director of operations Pierre Krahenbuhl told a Geneva press conference a day after the WSJ article.

However, the damage had already been done. ICRC officials were forced to go on the defensive to emphasise the ICRC's position.

"Confidentiality is a means not an end by itself. The ICRC believes that bilateral interventions and demarches serve better the interests of people in need of protection, notably people detained," Nada Doumani, ICRC spokesperson in the Middle East, told Aljazeera.net.

"If the ICRC would go public and denounce [sic], it risks being denied access to persons it needs to see."

Nada Doumani: ICRC works for a
better protection of those in need

Although the ICRC in 2003 visited 469,648 detainees in some 1923 detention sites, there are fears these visits may be seen as a way for detaining powers to claim legitimacy – that the ICRC had visited these sites and given its stamp of approval.

With no forum to publish the findings, such claims can neither be confirmed nor denied.

Doumani, however, denies such fears saying maintaining confidentiality "can have a better impact by maintaining good working relationships with authorities, definitely not to 'protect' these authorities but for a better protection of those in need". 

The ICRC believes it has already seen positive change on the basis of its consultations with US occupation forces in Iraq and that the ICRC report has been instrumental in convincing the Pentagon to launch internal investigations and "probably to dismiss or suspend some of those responsible for the abuses."

Separate investigations 

However, the Pentagon launched five separate investigations into interrogation practices at Abu Ghraib only after a US soldier reported several troubling incidents to his military superiors on 13 January.

On 26 January, US occupation authorities held a military court to investigate claims that four US soldiers had abused Iraqi detainees, including causing the death of Iraqi Baath official Najem Hatab in Camp Whitehorse in southern Iraq.  

Abuse at Abu Ghraib was not mentioned in the US military investigation until early May when US occupation forces announced courts martial for seven US military personnel accused of abusing and torturing Iraqi detainees.

Hundreds of Iraqi detainees have
been released since late April

On 30 April, the Pentagon announced that disciplinary action would be taken against several US officers overseeing the Abu Ghraib prison.

A BBC report, "US acts after Iraq prisoner abuse" hinted that the US became serious about rigorously pursuing internal investigations and bringing the guilty parties to justice only after the CBS broadcast.

With the furore over abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners growing, US military commanders in Iraq allowed journalists a tour of Abu Ghraib's detention facilities on 5 May.

But the tour was abruptly halted when Iraqi detainees began to denounce US President George Bush and allege they were abused.

Sweeping changes? 

On 14 May, US occupation authorities in Iraq announced sweeping changes in interrogation techniques of Iraqi prisoners and detainees. Sensory and sleep deprivation, hooding and "stress positions" would now be disallowed.

After several congressional hearings and questioning of senior military brass, including US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, the question poses itself – why did the US military not act when first advised by the ICRC in October 2003 that violations of the Geneva Conventions were occurring in US-run detention facilities?

Abizaid: report didn't reach top
officials till May 2004

According to Doumani, "since the fall of last year, we have repeatedly asked the detaining authorities orally and by submitting written reports to improve conditions of detention and notably treatment of detainees."

According to US General John Abizaid, the ICRC’s complaints and recommendations may not have reached top brass.  

"For example, the ICRC report of February 04, I first saw in May," Abizaid told a Congressional hearing last month.

"I won't make any excuses for it, Senator. I'll just say that we don't all see them. Sometimes it works at a lower level. Sometimes commanders at the lowest level get the report."  

Geneva Conventions 

In addition to the statutes of international law which forbid abuse, torture and humiliation of prisoners and detainees, there are other lesser-known provisions which may have been overlooked at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

According to the 1949 Geneva Conventions III and IV on the treatment of POW and civilian detainees, an occupying power may not use a facility formerly known to be a jail, prison or penitentiary to house prisoners of war or civilian detainees.

Article 22 paragraph 1 GC III provides that:

"Prisoners of war may be interned only in premises located on land and affording every guarantee of hygiene and healthfulness. Except in particular cases which are justified by the interest of the prisoners themselves, they shall not be interned in penitentiaries." 

Article 83 (IV) says "The Detaining Power shall not set up places of internment in areas particularly exposed to the dangers of war." 

Article 19 (III) states "Prisoners of war shall be evacuated, as soon as possible after their capture, to camps situated in an area far enough from the combat zone for them to be out of danger."

Senior military staff testify to
Congress about Abu Ghraib abuse

Not only is Abu Ghraib a penitentiary that was excessively used by the former Baath regime to house criminals and political prisoners, but it has consistently come under targeted mortar attack since August 2003.

On 17 August, six Iraqis were killed and 59 wounded when mortars rained on Abu Ghraib prison.

On 21 September, two US soldiers from the 800th Military Police Brigade were killed and 13 wounded when Abu Ghraib prison came under attack from Iraqi resistance fighters.

Mortar bombardment of Abu Ghraib prison on 27 October killed one US soldier, while an attack on the same facility on 20 April killed 22 Iraqi prisoners.

When asked whether the ICRC raised this point with US authorities in Iraq, Doumani said "Yes, we did raise this issue among other issues of concern related to the protection of detainees".

At press time, Iraqi prisoners were still being held at Abu Ghraib.

Best hope

The ICRC's stated mission statement, as mandated by the international community (states party to the four Geneva Conventions (GC)and its two Additional Protocols), is to protect victims of armed conflicts, international and non-international.

ICRC aids Palestinians displaced
by Israeli home demolitions

It is entitled to watch over the respect and correct implementation of international humanitarian law, explains Doumani.

Despite the recent criticism of the ICRC's methods of operation, many human rights activists and international organisations believe it to be the best, last hope for detainees and prisoners of conflict.

"I don't think we can or should ask (or 'demand') ICRC to break its confidentiality standard in the future.  I think it is needed in too many situations, and that it can only operate in the future if the detainers (sic) know it won't be broken," said David Hoffman of Humanity Check.

Hoffman believes that an article of faith exists between the ICRC and detaining powers, which if broken could mean that the condition of tens of thousands of prisoners may never be known, or indeed worsen.

"In return, [the] ICRC is able to go to key people in the detaining regime and bring abuse allegations -- and frequently can get specific suffering relieved," he added.

As for the situation in Iraq, Doumani believes that the ICRC has not "yet exhausted all its bilateral means and some improvements have taken place inside Abu Ghraib prison and other detention places following our recommendations."

Ward might not be so quick to agree.

“As far as I can tell from my research and reading, the ICRC's secrecy about the abuses inside Abu Graib has not helped the prisoners in any way. To me, the biggest dilemma they faced was seeing that the abuse was in fact getting worse, while their recommendations to the U.S. were completely ignored."

No change

Despite its obvious detractors, the ICRC is not likely to consider modifying its confidentiality mandate. Established in 1864, it has survived numerous wars, including the darkest phase in its history, World War II when countless atrocities were committed against Jews, Gypsies, Poles and Ukrainians, among others.

ICRC won't change confidentiality
mandate, says Doumani 

The horrors of the concentration camps were only revealed when US and Allied troops stormed through previously occupied Nazi strongholds.

"The ICRC will not yield to media pressure," maintains Doumani.

"We abide by our policy of confidentiality for the reasons stated above and we reserve our right to publish our findings when we deem it necessary and precisely in the best interest of people in need of protection."