IRRC No. 903

“Restoring hope where all hope was lost”: Nelson Mandela, the ICRC and the protection of political detainees in apartheid South Africa

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Amidst the violent upheavals of the end of empire and the Cold War, international organizations developed a basic framework for holding State and non-State armed groups to account for their actions when taking prisoners. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) placed itself at the very centre of these developments, making detention visiting a cornerstone of its work. Nowhere was this growing preoccupation with the problem of protecting detainees more evident than apartheid South Africa, where the ICRC undertook more detention visits than in almost any other African country. During these visits the ICRC was drawn into an internationalized human rights dispute that severely tested its leadership and demonstrated the troubled rapport between humanitarianism and human rights. The problems seen in apartheid South Africa reflect today's dilemmas of how to protect political detainees in situations of extreme violence. We can look to the past to find solutions for today's political detainees − or "security detainees" as they are now more commonly called.

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