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Treatment of prisoners: “Revise the Rules, but don’t lower existing standards,” says UN expert on torture

NEW YORK (22 October 2013) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, today urged governments to update the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners adopted more than five decades ago, but stressed that “any revision must not lower existing standards.”

Since their adoption, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners have retained considerable weight as an authoritative set of generally accepted global principles and practices for the treatment of prisoners and the management of penitentiary institutions.

“However, the Rules have significantly lagged behind recent developments in international human rights law and some areas are outdated and even contradict binding human rights instruments,” warned the UN expert during the presentation of his latest report* to the UN General Assembly.

“States should spare no effort to ensure the full and effective implementation of all fundamental principles contained in international treaties, jurisprudence and instruments to ensure an updated set of guidelines and standards are reflected in a revised version of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the treatment of prisoners,” Mr. Méndez said.

The human rights expert noted that the fact that the absolute prohibition of torture and other forms of ill-treatment is absent from the Rules demonstrates that they require considerable revision. “It is rather obvious that unless the Rules are revised, to adequately reflect the recent advances in international law and best practices, it is unlikely that penitentiary staff will look beyond what the current Rules require,” he underscored.

“Treating all persons deprived of their liberty with humanity and with respect for their dignity is a fundamental and universally applicable rule, the application of which, at a minimum, cannot be dependent on the material resources available to a State party,” he said.

The Special Rapporteur’s report reveals gaps and inconsistencies in areas where the Rules have not kept pace with the most recent developments in human rights and offers a set of procedural standards for a revised version of the Rules.

“Prison populations are growing on all five continents; placing an enormous financial burden on States,” the UN expert said, drawing attention to the increase in the prison population, which is now estimated at over 10 million prisoners worldwide. “The global prison crisis has an adverse impact on conditions of detention. The overuse of imprisonment constitutes one of the major underlying causes of overcrowding, which results in conditions that amount to ill-treatment or even torture.”

“It is in this context,” Mr. Méndez explained, “and in light of the developments on the treatment of detainees in international law, that the revision and implementation of the UN Standard Minimum Rules becomes one of the most important standard setting exercises and a ‘turning point’ on its own”.

In his view, the revision of the Rules is a stepping stone towards their more effective implementation. “However,” he warned, “implementation of rules that are incomplete, outdated and do not adequately reflect recent developments in international law, regarding the treatment of detainees, are ineffective.”

Among the areas subject to revision, the Special Rapporteur stressed, “there is a need to regulate the use of solitary confinement, including inserting an absolute ban on its use for indefinite or prolonged durations, and to prohibit any use of solitary confinement against juveniles, persons with mental disabilities and women who are pregnant or nursing”.

Mr. Méndez also emphasized the need to extend the application of the UN Standard Minimum Rules to all places of deprivation of liberty, including mental hospitals and police stations. Finally, he insisted that the Rules must contain guidelines for the proper, independent and impartial investigation of all incidents of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in detention centers.

The Special Rapporteur called on States to continue engagement with the open-ended intergovernmental Expert Group and to consider the recommendations made in his report – as well as those made by the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and several non-governmental organizations – in the deliberations ahead regarding the proposed revisions to the Rules at the next Expert Group meeting in Brazil, scheduled for December 2013.

Juan E. Méndez (Argentina) was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in November 2010. He is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. Mr. Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights, and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Torture/SRTorture/Pages/SRTortureIndex.aspx

(*) Read the full report by the Special Rapporteur: http://www.un.org/Docs/journal/asp/ws.asp?m=A/68/295

Check the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CAT.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Ms. Stephanie Selg (+1 202 557 9095 / sselg@ohchr.org) or write to sr-torture@ohchr.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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