OHCHR and detention

"Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views."

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
‘Urgent action needed to prevent COVID-19 “rampaging through places of detention”’
Geneva, 25 March 2020

About detention

Everyone has the right to liberty of person. International human rights law recognizes, however, that deprivation of liberty is sometimes justified, such as in the enforcement of criminal laws. In these circumstances, detention can never be arbitrary and must always be carried out with respect for the rule of law. As affirmed by the Human Rights Council in its resolution 24/12 , detainees retain all of their human rights and fundamental freedoms, except for those lawful limitations that are caused by being incarcerated.

Arbitrary detention exposes the victim to the possibility of further violations, including torture or other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment; enforced and involuntary disappearances; and extrajudicial execution.

Thousands of persons are subjected to arbitrary detention each year. This may be because:

  • they have been punished for exercising one of their fundamental rights under the Declaration of Human Rights and human rights treaties, such as the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of association, or to leave and enter one’s own country;
  • they are arrested and detained without a warrant or held in pretrial detention without access to a lawyer;
  • they remain in detention after the measure or punishment which was applied to them has ended;
  • they are in administrative detention for seeking asylum and are not a present, direct and imperative threat;
  • they have been detained for discriminatory reasons based on birth, national, ethnic or social origin, language, religion, economic condition, political or other opinion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or other status.

Our work on detention

We carry out a range of country-specific and regional activities, including:

  • Providing support for judicial reform, including initiatives that incorporate international human rights norms and standards on detention into domestic legislation;
  • Investigating allegations of arbitrary detention and other related detention violations, such as enforced disappearances;
  • Advising and training law enforcement officials on international norms and standards on detention and human rights.

Latest publications and reports

COVID-19: Focus on persons deprived of their liberty (2020): The UN Human Rights Office and the World Health Organization have issued an interim guidance paper which contains key messages and actions on detention during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the recommendation to release children, persons with underlying health conditions, persons with low risk profiles who have committed minor and petty offences, persons with imminent release dates and those detained for offences not recognized under international law.

Integrity of the judicial system (2020): In this report, submitted pursuant to Human Rights Council resolution 37/3, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights examines the implications of the lack of integrity of the judicial system for human rights, in particular for persons kept in detention facilities outside the territory of States.
View report page | View document A/HRC/43/35

Human rights in the administration of justice (2019): This report addresses violence, death and serious injury in situations of deprivation of liberty, examining the types of violence that result in deaths and serious injury, as well as the environmental factors that contribute to such deaths. The High Commissioner also considers measures that can be adopted to address these issues, including measures to ensure accountability, as well as other practical measures and good practices.
View report page | View document A/HRC/42/20

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