International Committee of the Red Cross expects to resume prison visits in early 2013, its representative in Myanmar said last week, after a gap of more than seven years.
“We are talking with the Ministry of Home Affairs about organising the resumption of the visits. The government made [a] public statement it will resume, reopen access to prisoners for ICRC. Basically, we are in the process of working out with Ministry of Home Affairs how we are going to do it,” ICRC resident representative Mr Georges Paclisanu told The Myanmar Times on Monday, December 17.
“What is clear is government has agreed to respect ICRC standards, which are applied worldwide,” he said.
He said ICRC would work with prisoners and prison authorities and avoid political issues.
“Our main focus is not to [judge] whether a man or woman is rightfully in prison … Our focus is to see that the spirit of international laws respected,” Mr Paclisanu said.
The ICRC was forced to suspend prison visits in 2005 because the government insisted its staff be accompanied by officials from government-linked organisations. However, in November the government said in a statement that it would once again grant ICRC access to prisoners.
ICRC has also been able to undertake infrastructure projects in the prison system, including “installing sewage systems, solar power and access to groundwater in many of the country’s prisons”, the statement from the President’s Office said.
Mr Paclisanu said the visits would be permitted at prisons throughout the country once a trial visit is conducted.
“I can’t give you the date even though I’m fairly sure that authorities would agree with that date. We have to confirm it with them … [but] it does mean January or February but not June,” he said.
“Quite frankly I’m fairly optimistic that it’s going to work. If it’s not, we will work on fixing what does not work.
“Our job is not to tell the detainees [and the] authorities, ‘That is wrong, fix it.’ Our job is also to go see what are the points that need to be worked on, what can be done and find tangible solutions to work it out.”
While he said the decision was “very good” for ICRC, Mr Paclisanu would not be drawn on its broader significance for the country and its political situation.
“We cannot pass judgement on political issues – whether the country is going in the right direction or not. But from the standpoint of our work it is very good. It’s a fact that three years ago we cannot go into prison. Now we have received the clearance. Only a foolish person would not recognise that. We are happy with the step that has been taken by the government in regards of our access to prisons.”
Meanwhile, a senior ICRC official said in a statement earlier this month that the committee is also providing assistance to displaced people in Rakhine State.
Mr Alain Aeschlimann, Southeast Asia head of operations for the ICRC said on Tuesday, December 11 that it had started permanent operations in June in the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe. The region has been hit by two outbreaks of communal violence in the past six months, with hundreds of lives lost and more than 100,000 displaced.
“Together with the Myanmar Red Cross Society, we are providing basic but vital assistance to the sick, wounded and displaced, regardless of their origins,” said Mr Aeschlimann, referring to his organisation’s activities in Rakhine State.
“Both organisations are evacuating patients who cannot get to health facilities on their own and giving first aid to the injured. In addition, we are renovating sanitation facilities and supplying water in camps for displaced persons.”
However, more recent violence has forced the ICRC to consider an expansion of its operations, he said.
“Following the last outbreak of violence, in October, we are considering a significant increase in our involvement.”
He also said ICRC was “very pleased” to be able to resume prison visits.
“[W]e look forward to visiting prisons and other places of detention,” Mr Aeschlimann said. “We intend to start detention visits as soon as possible, rather than sitting in offices discussing the subject.”
During the visits, ICRC officials will assess prisoners’ welfare, including their living conditions and access to healthcare.
“We can work with the authorities and help them improve the treatment of detainees and conditions of detention,” Mr Aeschlimann said.