Berkeley Human Rights Q&A #3: Hernán Reyes

Watching the world’s prisons

Hernan speaking on prison panelDr. Hernán Reyes thought he was signing up for a brief stint with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after finishing his medical studies and specialization as an Ob/Gyn.  The job turned into a passion and a three-decade career, taking him to hundreds of prisons worldwide to document and bear witness to torture and other abuses. While most people are aware of the Red Cross—especially the country-specific American Red Cross, French Red Cross or Turkish Red Crescent—the ICRC itself is less known. The organization was launched in 1863 with the first Geneva Convention to ensure that the battlefield wounded weren’t left to suffer and die. Later, the ICRC helped implement wartime protocols to protect prisoners of war. The son of a United Nations translator, Reyes was born in Chile and raised in New York and Geneva. Reyes is retired from the ICRC now, living with his wife in Geneva, and serving as a Human Rights Center Senior Fellow. His grown children are traveling (and positively impacting) the world. He recently visited UC Berkeley to speak on a panel about prison conditions, solitary confinement, and hunger strikes.

Q. Your career path in medicine shifted pretty radically, from obstetrics to prisons. How did that happen?

A. I knocked on the ICRC’s door, thinking they might need a gynecologist. They said no, we need surgeons or midwives, not a gynecologist. But would you be interested in looking into prisons and prison medicine?…The last delivery I did was my youngest daughter who is now 24! All in all, I’ve spent 28 years working for the International Committee of the Red Cross, visiting hundreds of prisons in more than 40 countries, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and practically everything in the middle, including Guantánamo and Maze prison in the UK—the worst and the best, and the most gruesome prisons you can imagine.

Q. Isn’t the Red Cross a disaster relief agency? Where do prisons come in?

A. The International Committee of the Red Cross was created in the middle of the 19th century in Geneva by a Swiss citizen who saw that after battle, the wounded were abandoned and left to bleed to death. Nobody took care of them. Nothing was structured on one side or the other. More often than not, the wounded were knifed by the locals, the peasants who came to steal whatever they had on them. He said, ‘We have to do something to stop this.’ He went back to Geneva. He got together four citizens of Geneva, and they formed the first founding committee of what they called the Red Cross.

Q. How does it work?

A. Medical neutrality means that you can’t stop war from happening, but once somebody is out of action, either because he’s wounded or has surrendered, you do not finish him off. You have to provide medical attention for your wounded and for the wounded on the other side….The second principle is that each army has to organize its own medical services, medical orderlies, and doctors, as well to go pick up the wounded. The third principle is to do that, these ‘care givers’ so to say, have to be protected. If you shoot the guy who has the stretcher, he’s not going to pick up anybody. He has to have a distinctive mark on him to be recognized so that nobody takes a shot at him. That’s when the red cross came up.…A red cross on a white background. That means medical neutrality. Don’t shoot this guy. This guy is looking after our wounded and your wounded. Then each country had to implement these principles and found their national Red Cross.

Q. Did anyone object to the use of the cross?

A. The Red Crescent came into being in 1878 because the Turks, fourteen years after the convention, said could not accept a cross, which for them signified the Crusades. As Muslims, they couldn’t do that. The Geneva committee agreed and said they could adopt the crescent instead.

Q. How did ICRC’s work on the battlefield transfer to prisons?

A. The 1929 Convention on Prisoners of War was a revised and expanded convention, which specifically said that the ICRC could have the role of visiting prisoners on both sides and seeing to it that they were adequately taken care of and, in addition, seeing to the exchanges of the severely wounded, delivery of family parcels to prisoners, and even more importantly, exchanges of mail between prisoners and their families.

“Nobody seems to reflect on the fact that hundreds of Afghans were sent to Guantánamo because bounty hunters were offering something like a $5,000 reward….Do you think they got an apology? Any compensation? They got a kick in the butt and had to sign a statement saying they were not mistreated, which was false in many cases.”

Q. Did you get an easy first assignment?

In 1982 and 1983, I covered four countries and the situation was completely different in each. The Argentinians were extremely, extremely harsh with their prisoners. As is known now, up to 30,000 were killed, many thrown into the sea off helicopters. The Uruguayans, on the other hand, did not kill their prisoners, but subjected them to psychological torture, which was actually orchestrated by psychiatrists and psychologists. They had a specific prison, which was almost a laboratory for studying the effects of psychological torture on prisoners. They used solitary confinement on leaders of the Tupamaros and the Communists. Paraguay was more the poor country without resources. In Paraguay, torture was not really an issue. As for Chile, ten years after Pinochet’s taking power, torture and extra-judicial killings were still going on, less than in the early years, but there was the additional problem of political prisoners or internal exiles being relegated thousands of kilometers from their families and needing assistance.

Q. Are you caring for prisoners or rather evaluating their conditions?

We’re not there to provide medical care because we’re not there to replace the local medical staff. The idea is to evaluate the situation. What are the health risks? What is the medical staff like? What kind of infrastructure do they have? And is it working? Maybe the doctors have all the good intentions in the world, but the system doesn’t work. Maybe it’s corrupt and the prisoners have to pay a guard to go see the doctors, so they don’t go. You have to get into it and see what’s working and what’s not and try to make it work.

Q. Why do countries that torture or otherwise abuse prisoners let you in the door?

A. When a country really tortures, they don’t let us in. In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, we never got close to visiting political prisoners—although we did visit POWs during the three international wars. The easiest way for a dictator to do what he pleases is to not to let anyone visit. But in other countries, they do let you visit. There are many reasons why. Maybe the country wants to look good to the United Nations. They get mileage out of it. But then again, if they don’t follow our recommendations, we can always say we’re pulling out and say we can’t work with you. And they’ll look even worse.…In Idi Amin’s Uganda, things were terrible. People were being killed under the noses of the Red Cross. So the ICRC pulled out. They went back in a year or so later. The Ugandans said, ‘Why did you leave? At least when you were here you saved some people. When you left, it was five times worse. Ten times worse.’ You have to really think about if you pull out or don’t.

Q. Do you release your reports or are they kept confidential? 

A. That’s one of the main ways the ICRC works—by publishing reports that are only for the country. Argentina gets the reports on Argentina and Chile gets the reports on Chile, et cetera. But not for Prisoners of War. For POWs, they give the reports to both sides.

Q. So you can’t talk freely about what you see?

A. No. For the most part, at least now, the media is so extensively developed it wouldn’t make sense to publish our reports because most of what we say in them is already out there by Amnesty International, by Physicians for Human Rights, by Human Rights Watch, et cetera. They have their sources from families, from ex-detainees, from ex-guards, from ex-doctors from the prisons. The information is out there. Everybody thinks ‘ooh, if we could only see the ICRC report.’ They wouldn’t find much they don’t already know. If we’d publish them, we’d be part of the crowd. And countries would never let us in.

Q. Have things gotten better over the span of your career?

A. Yes, but no. In general, no. Torture is still very much going on. We still have situations like Guantánamo. The Middle East is getting much, much worse than when I was there. South Asia has not changed. It gets better in a country when the situation changes. For example, Uruguay used very severe psychological torture, but then [the country] changed completely and became a democracy again. The former political prisoners actually went into government. Recently I went to see one of the old leaders of the Tupamaros movement. He was tortured and in solitary confinement for like 8 or 11 years…. and now he’s Minister of Defense. The military has turned the page.

Q. What about Guantánamo?

A. I visited Guantánamo in the years when they had 500 or 600 internees in 2003 and 2004. George W. Bush said the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply, but, ‘we’ll be nice to them anyway.’ The U.S. would have looked very bad if they didn’t let the ICRC in. They knew our reports would go only to them, so they did let us in. Everything that happened in Guantánamo has been published so it’s nothing new. It’s frankly a disgrace.…And not just Guantánamo, but Abu Ghraib. Many Muslims, Palestinians, Iraqis and others said to us, ‘We could never have thought of better publicity for our cause than what the Americans gave us.’ Those posters are all over the Middle East. It was not a good thing for anybody, especially those tortured that way.

Q. Has global attention improved how the United States treats its prisoners?

A. An ICRC report on Abu Ghraib was leaked—I don’t know where—and it was quite horrendous and then the pictures came out. A soldier leaked them. If the pictures and report hadn’t come out, would anything have changed? I’m not quite sure. I’m not sure at all. It came out and so obviously they couldn’t continue.

Guantánamo is just a holding place, which is a bloody disgrace. Nobody seems to reflect on the fact that hundreds of Afghans were sent to Guantánamo because bounty hunters were offering up something like a $5,000 reward. Afghanistan is a tribal country.…For example, all of a sudden, an Uzbek sees his Tajik neighbor who has a nice little house, donkey, a good looking wife, too. He’d tell the military sergeant, ‘He’s a Talib. I’ve seen him.’ This poor Tajik would then be arrested and put in a helicopter and in a plane and sent to Guantánamo. The Uzbek then got the $5,000, plus the donkey, plus the house—possibly also the wife. No questions asked. That is a disgrace. Hundreds of Afghans taken in the same way were eventually cleared and sent back. Do you think they got an apology? Any compensation? They got a kick in the butt and had to sign a statement saying they were not mistreated, which was false in many cases. And nobody is riled up about it. I think that’s a disgrace. All this has been published extensively, but still there’s no accountability.

Q. Are prisons on United States soil violating human rights?

A. Long-term solitary confinement is used on prisoners who have nothing to do with the war on terror or any security issues. Solitary confinement is used just because you possess a book by al Qaeda or have a tattoo that links you to a gang. This is what you used to get from tin pot dictators in some parts of the world where we visited. I didn’t know the U.S. had ‘political prisoners’ like that. And some states like California even use solitary confinement not for ten days or a month, which is extreme limit in Europe but for ten months, ten years, twenty years and more. And now, big deal, they decide you can’t use solitary confinement for more than ten years in California? What do you mean ten years? You shouldn’t use it for more than ten days.

Q. Tell us a story that really changed you.

 A. The Falklands war was in 1982. In 1991, the Argentinians wanted to visit the tombs of the Argentinian soldiers who fell in the Falklands. Obviously, relations between Argentina and the UK were not good. The military was still very much established in the Falklands. They asked the ICRC to supervise a visit….We went to the cemetery to the tombs of the Argentinian soldiers. Everyone was crying. It was very emotional. I was standing with a British colonel. A tough guy, a decent fellow. A young woman with long hair comes by. She was crying her eyes out. She tells us her brother had died in the Falklands. She had brought some earth from her garden. A little plant. [Her brother’s] tomb was unmarked so she just chose an unmarked tomb and planted it there. She had another little plant. She said, ‘Could you please, doctor, translate for the colonel?’ [Dr. Reyes is starting to cry as he recounts the story.] She said, ‘Colonel could you please take this and plant this on the tomb of a British soldier?’ That was the enemy. And the tough colonel was then crying. I’ll never forget that.

Q. What will spark prison reform and better treatment of political prisons?

A. You can’t have a global answer. Every country is different. People are different. The earth is a beautiful place, but the problem is that it’s populated by humans. Despite what Rousseau said, not everybody is born a good person and stays a good person. There’s the Blaise Pascal quote: ‘The whole ocean rises for just one stone you throw into it.’ So you do your part. Keep on throwing stones in.

The Human Rights Center launched in 2015 a series of interviews to capture the stories of UC Berkeley alumni, professors, and other visitors who offer insights on protecting and defending human rights globally. For more information or to suggest a Berkeley Human Rights Q&A, email Andrea Lampros at