GENEVA – The international Red Cross has been buffeted by demands that it drop its policy of confidentiality in dealing with prisoners in Iraq, but says its quiet approach is the best protection for victims of war.
"We're getting private e-mails. We're getting comment from journalists. We're seeing reports in media around the world," Antonella Notari, chief spokeswoman of the International Committee of the Red Cross (search), said of the response to the publication of its confidential report on abuse at U.S.-run prisons in Iraq.
The report indicated the abuse went on for more than a year during which the Red Cross repeatedly complained in private, raising the question of whether the agency could have been more effective had it gone public with its findings.
Notari said making violations of international humanitarian law public doesn't necessarily change the situation on the ground. She noted public criticism failed to halt atrocities during the Balkan wars of the 1990s or to prevent the Rwandan genocide in 1994.
"One organization — and that is us — must be able to continue working to address the issues on the spot with the people who are directly affected and with the people who are in charge of their situation and try to work on it in a pragmatic way there and then," she said.
"Our way of working does have an effect, but it doesn't always immediately have an effect," Notari told The Associated Press.
The Red Cross report, published in the Wall Street Journal, was a summary of its various attempts in person and in writing from March to November 2003 to get U.S. officials to stop abuses.
Those earlier interventions by the Red Cross far preceded the Pentagon's decision to investigate after a low-ranking U.S. soldier stepped forward in January.
The Red Cross said it wanted to keep the report confidential because it saw U.S. officials making progress in responding to their complaints.
The Geneva-based organization gave its report to coalition forces in February. The prisoner abuse erupted into an international scandal in recent days after the publication of disturbing photographs from Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison (search).
The ICRC was founded in 1863 to help the wounded and other victims of war. It has been designated by the Geneva Conventions (search) as the world's agency to visit prisoners of war and other conflicts.
Pierre Kraehenbuehl, ICRC director of operations, said last Friday that the neutral agency almost always uses confidential discussions because they achieve results and allow the ICRC to maintain access where it feels most needed — to the prisoners in warfare.
"It is important that someone comes into these places of detention and tries to work concretely on improving their situation and not leaving them to face such a situation alone," he added.
Notari said that all the focus on Iraq has diverted attention from the ICRC's visits to 460,000 detainees in more than 70 countries last year, and they wouldn't be possible without confidentiality.
She said she was reminded of the importance of those visits last week by Souha Bechara, a Lebanese women who was imprisoned for 10 years in southern Lebanon and regarded Red Cross visits as a lifeline.
Bechara was detained starting in 1988 after attempting to kill Gen. Antoine Lahd, commander of Israeli-backed militia in southern Lebanon. She was freed under a deal in which France gave her residency.
Bechara, 37 and now living in Geneva, told the AP that she spent six years in solitary confinement before the Red Cross gained access to her camp.
"In our cells we didn't have water, we didn't have toilets, we just had buckets for our needs," she said. "There were no beds. There were mattresses on the floor, but they were always damp. There was no contact with your family. You were completely cut off from the outside."
That changed when the ICRC came in and financed improvements to the camp, Bechara said.
She and the other women used to joke that the agency's arrival turned the squalid prison "into a five-star hotel," and it was based on confidential talks with the Israelis, not public denunciations.
Most important, she said, was that the Red Cross reestablished contact between the women and their families after years.
"You can imagine what it's like after 10 or 15 years of detention to get a letter from your family," Bechara said.