The Right to Health Advocacy Project of WHO oPt was invited to address a national conference held in Ramallah on 17 December, 2012, “Supporting all detainees in Israeli occupation jails,” sponsored by the Palestinian Ministry of Detainees and ex-Detainees Affairs, the Center for Defense of Liberties and Civil Rights (Hurryyat) and the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club Association.
Other speakers at the event included the Prime Minister Dr Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society Director Dr Younes Khatib and Minister of Detainees’ Affairs Mr Issa Krakie. Anita Vitullo, Project Manager of the Right to Health Advocacy Project, also spoke in her capacity as a long-time human rights activist, representative of the WHO office in the occupied Palestinian territory, public health specialist and as the wife of a former Palestinian prisoner. The following are her words.
The Right to Health is important. In 1989, when I was documenting deaths in detention in the West Bank, I visited the family of a young Palestinian man, a university student from the Tulkarem area, who had been arrested and held in a “khazani,” a kind of upright very narrow closet. He suffered from asthma and depended on ventolin, a broncho-dilator, to ease his breathing. But the medicine had been taken away from him, and on the third day of his detention, he suffocated and died.
I don’t think something like this could happen these days … but we don’t really know. Palestinian prisoners have struggled hard over the years to improve their conditions, but there is still much to do.
- All prisoners have the right to conditions of detention that are consistent with human dignity.
- People in prison have the same right to enjoy health, both physical and mental, and to have the same standard of health that is provided to the wider community.
- Depriving a person of their liberty entails a duty of care which calls for effective prevention, screening and treatment.
- Prison administrations of any institution for compulsory detention, including prisoners under administration detention, awaiting trial or sentenced have a responsibility to ensure that prisoners receive proper health care and that prison conditions promote the well-being of prisoners. There are 24 Israeli-run places of detention: nine prisons, five interrogation centres, seven holding centres and three military camps. Only one of these places, Ofer Prison, is located in the occupied Palestinian territory. The rest are in Israel. In addition, the Palestinian Authority operates seven prisons or jails.
- Health care staff must deal with prisoners as patients and not as prisoners. That is the job of prison staff.
- Health care staff must have the same professional independence as their professional colleagues who work in the community; ideally health staff should be employees of the Ministry of Health and not prison services.
- Prisoners who need medical treatment have the right to confidentiality, privacy, access to information about their condition and recommended tests and procedures. No treatment may be administered without the willing consent of the prisoner.
- Cleanliness, healthy food, contact with families, opportunities to gain basic life skills, respect of religion, are all basic rights of people in prison. Poor conditions of detention may exacerbate health decline, disease transmission, mental illness or death.
Palestinian prisoners should not have to undertake hunger strikes to gain attention to their conditions of imprisonment. The Israeli human rights organization, Physicians for Human Rights, receive 400 complaints annually from Palestinian prisoners and their families about prison conditions. The Palestinian community whether government, nongovernmental organization, community organization or support group and the international community in the oPt, UN agency or donors, share responsibility for the health of prisoners and ex-prisoners and can promote their right to health in a number of ways by
- Collecting reliable data on prisoner health, diets, conditions, and special needs and advocating for positive interventions.
- Tracking the health of ex-prisoners, to better understand the physical and mental health and social problems of integrating back into the community and addressing health providers of the needs of this vulnerable group.
- Providing information to prisoners and families about how to cope with illness in prison, how to report illness, and following up with those in responsibility.
- Ensuring that accountability mechanisms are used, such as national human rights institutions.
* * *
Several international standards recognize the right to health and define the quality of health care that should be provided to prisoners.
International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966), Article 12:
UN Basic Principles for Treatment of Prisoners (1990): “Prisoners should have access to the health services available in the country without discrimination without discrimination on the grounds of their legal situation.”
Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (United Nations Convention against Torture)
Relevant Statistics: As of November 2012 : Number of Palestinian detainees by Israeli security forces is about 4432: 12 are under the age of 16; 156 age between 16 and 18; 178 are under administration detention.
 B'Tselem - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, http://www.btselem.org/statistics/minors_in_custody, last accessed on 13 December, 2012.