Exploration 5C: Focus on Protecting Prisoners


One of the consequences of armed conflict is the taking and holding of prisoners. International humanitarian law (IHL) includes measures specifically intended to protect prisoners. One of the tasks of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is to visit prisons in order to assess the extent of compliance with these provisions of international law. The videos of this exploration allow learners to see another aspect of the humanitarian needs that arise from armed conflict and the way in which humanitarian action may respond. And learners examine a dilemma that such visits can raise for humanitarian workers.

This course is two 45-minute sessions.


  • To be aware of some ways that international humanitarian law protects the lives and human dignity of prisoners
  • To understand some dilemmas that humanitarian workers face in protecting prisoners

Key Ideas

  • The life and human dignity of people taken prisoner as a result of armed conflict are at risk.
  • IHL mandates protections for prisoners and prison visits by humanitarian representatives to verify that these protections are being provided.
  • Humanitarian workers visiting prisons may face difficult dilemmas in their work.



Why Prisoners Need Protections | 15 minutes

Ask learners to suggest reasons in response to the question:

  • Why may a person who is imprisoned because of involvement in an armed conflict be specially at risk? [Such reasons include being suspected of holding vital information, being considered to be the enemy, attitude that an enemy doesn't deserve human treatment, chaos and insufficient control over those in charge of the prisoners, insufficient means to properly accommodate the prisoners.]
  • Then have learners work in small groups or with a partner to list in response to this question:

  • What dangers and difficulties might such prisoners face in captivity?
  • In group discussion, compile a list of their ideas.

    [For example: danger of disappearing; summary execution; danger of being tortured during interrogation or forced to sign a confession; insufficient food, water, clothing, shelter, washing and toilet facilities and access to open air; poor access to medical care; problem of being without family news (family might not even know that the prisoner is alive); danger of exposure to propaganda and pressure to collaborate; possible difficulties with other detainees; trauma of being held in captivity; sense of powerlessness, fears for the fate of one's family]

    On the basis of the problems learners list, ask the small groups to think about what must be done to protect the health and human dignity of prisoners during an armed conflict. Have them write their ideas for specific rules. Remind them that women and children may be imprisoned also. Would they propose special protections for them?

    Discuss the ideas learners propose.

    Possible question:

  • Do your rules cover all of the problems the group has put forward?

  • 2

    How IHL Protects Prisoners | 20 minutes

    Present the resource “Protections of prisoners” and have learners consider how their suggestions match the protections covered under IHL.

    Possible questions:

  • Which protections, if any, might be hard for captors to provide? Why?
  • What can be done to ensure that prisoners get these protections?
  • As learners brainstorm ideas, you can group them under four main headings.
  • Ways to ensure respect for the life and dignity of prisoners

    1. Captor responsibility: The law requires that those in charge of prisons receive training in the rules that they must obey and that their instructions be monitored. Should any abuse be identified, it must be stopped and corrected, and those who are responsible must be penalized. Authorities must also provide adequate funds and means to the prisons.

    2. Prison visits: IHL provides for neutral humanitarian organizations such as the ICRC to visit prisoners in the camps and prisons in which they are held and to monitor their treatment. After visiting prisoners, the ICRC makes recommendations to the authorities concerned. It keeps its findings confidential and discusses them only with the authorities concerned.

    3. Public protests: Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch or local human rights organizations make public what they learn about the abuse of prisoners by their captors. This may help put pressure on warring parties to respect IHL or human rights, often in order to preserve their own public image. However, such public denunciations often prevent human rights organizations from having the direct access to prisoners or the prison authorities that is needed to improve their conditions of imprisonment.

    4. Prosecution by tribunals: One of the aims of the justice system is to prevent violations by showing potential perpetrators that violations such as torture or summary execution will not remain unpunished (fear of prosecution).

    Discuss these four ways of providing protection for prisoners.

    Possible questions:

  • What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
  • Are these methods complementary or do they contradict each other?
  • Can the same organization visit prisons and also make public protests? Why or why not?

  • 3

    Visiting Prisoners | 20 – 30 minutes

    Present the video “Light in the darkness”, in which learners will see how ICRC prison delegates make regular visits to prisons that hold people who have been captured or arrested as enemies. The voices (and subtitles) on the video clip come from views expressed by actual prisoners.

    Before viewing the video, instruct half of the learners to look for and make notes on one of the following questions and the other half on the other.

  • What do ICRC delegates do during prison visits?
  • How can an ICRC prison visit help a prisoner?
  • Have learners report on what they learned through the video.

    Possible questions:

  • How does what you saw relate to the rules you proposed? To the protections under IHL?
  • What human qualities and skills do you think are needed to conduct a prison visit?
  • Note: If you are unable to show the video, learners can look for their answers in the pictures as well as in prisoners’ testimonies in the transcript. They may even need to imagine what might be inspected if delegates look everywhere, not just where the prison authorities want them to look.

    Present the following advice, which is given to ICRC detention delegates.

    As you tour the prison before having private talks with the prisoners:

    1. Think about your introductory speech to inmates.

    2. Watch for:

  • Signs of discrimination (“economy, business, first class”)
  • The prison “jungle” (groups, castes,…)
  • Warning signals
  • 3. Not stigmatizing any specific inmate

  • Remember, seeing the whole prison doesn’t mean you understand everything.
  • Possible questions:

  • What reasons can you think of for each part of the advice?

  • 4

    A Dilemma Faced By a Prison Delegate | 20 – 30 minutes (small groups)

    Present the situation an ICRC delegate faces in the dilemma scenario “How can I protect these prisoners?”

    Instruct half of the small groups to examine (1) the option of speaking to the prison director about the abuse.

    Questions for these groups:

  • What are the advantages and possible risks for the prisoners?
  • What can you do to avoid retaliation by the prison director or the guards? [For example: Remind the director that delegates will revisit the prisoners to make sure nothing has happened to them. Speak of the ill-treatment in general terms to avoid singling out individuals or a group of detainees.]
  • Instruct the other small groups to examine (2) the option of not mentioning the problem of ill-treatment to the director.

    Questions for these groups:

  • What are the advantages and possible risks for the prisoners?
  • What can you do nevertheless to help the prisoners? [For example: Wait until the prisoners are transferred to another prison before discussing the case(s) of ill-treatment. Have a talk with high-ranking officials and report what you have heard without specifying in which prison it happened.]
  • Then lead a discussion on each option.

    Have learners decide what course of action they would choose and write a paragraph telling what they would do and why.

    Discuss their choices. Point out that this kind of decision depends on:

  • The actual context
  • The guarantee delegates have to visit the prisons on a regular basis
  • The prisoners’ best interest
  • Present “A prisoner remembers”, through which learners meet a man who was detained in a prison.

    Discuss learners’ reactions.

    Possible questions:

  • What are the main feelings the memories of this prisoner evoke?
  • Are you surprised that his door was opened? Why do you think the prison authorities decided to open it?
  • What abilities do you think the work of prison visiting demands from the humanitarian worker?

  • 5


    Return to the handout listing protections IHL requires for prisoners.

    Possible questions:

  • Are you surprised by anything that is on the list, and if so, why? How does it protect the human dignity of a prisoner of war or political detainee?
  • Is there any other protection you would add to this list? Why?
  • Conclude by asking learners to use their video viewing and transcript and the dilemma to think about:

  • The need for various items on the list
  • The role of prison visits