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Statements and speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights


03 October 2023

Delivered by





Palais des Nations, Room No. XXII, Geneva

Excellencies and colleagues,

I am pleased to address you today at this forum. I thank all the organizers for convening this high-level event on the United Nations Common Position on Incarceration.

Over recent years, the human rights situation for detainees has reflected the convergence of two global crises.

First, the COVID-19 pandemic, a global public health crisis on a scale not seen for a century, affecting all sectors of society, including the Judiciary and penitentiary systems.

Second, the fact that this pandemic unfolded against the backdrop of a worldwide prison crisis characterized by record numbers of people imprisoned globally 11.7 million by 2019; and 102 countries reporting prison occupation levels that exceeded 110 per cent.

In a context of inadequate criminal justice reform and funding, the convergence of these crises exposed the catastrophic overcrowding and under resourcing of prisons in the gravest of terms – through the loss of life. In recent years, we have all witnessed fatal tragedies occurring in prison facilities in almost all regions of the world. 

While emergency measures during the pandemic led to a decrease in the prison population by more than 600,000 in 2020, the prison population began to increase again in 2021 in most regions of the world – raising the question of whether we have learned the lessons of the pandemic. 

The situation in prisons today is exacerbated by several other factors. 

The number of unsentenced prisoners or pre-trial detainees has been rising - adding pressure on prisons while also raising concerns that we are far from achieving SDG targets on the number of unsentenced detainees as a proportion of the overall prison population.

Lack of work, educational activities and even rehabilitation programs, exacerbated by overcrowding, is conducive to prison violence and violations of human rights of persons deprived of liberty.

Systemic deficiencies in criminal justice systems, including those related to systematic racial discrimination and bias, fuel sentiments of injustice and inequality, often leading to violence and further deterioration of rights and of the prison system.

 Criminalization of acts such as possession of drugs for personal use, sex work or consensual adult same-sex conduct not only raises human rights concerns but also contributes to prison overcrowding in many countries.

As the number of women in prison is increasing at a faster rate than of men – a 35 per cent increase for women as opposed to 16 per cent for men – we must be conscious of the differential impact of the prison crisis on women and men.


At the backdrop of the dire global prison situation, UN agencies jointly developed the United Nations System Common Position on Incarceration.

The Common Position is guided by international human rights law and is fully in line with UN standards and norms on crime prevention and criminal justice and the Sustainable Development Goals.

Through the Common Position, the UN pledges to support reform efforts aimed at ensuring proportionate and individualized sentencing policies and alternatives to conviction or punishment in appropriate cases, including for minor drug-related offences.

The Common Position equally commits to advocacy for the decriminalization of acts, such as drug possession for personal use, that are protected by international human rights law; it offers a strong gender perspective throughout and reiterates core messages related to children deprived of liberty.

At this historic juncture, as we mark the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  We wish to seize the occasion to accelerate prison reform to be in line with the aspirations of the human rights cause and intentions of the drafters of the Universal Declaration.

Let me reiterate the call of the High Commissioner for Human Rights -at the start of this year of the anniversary- to governments and all detaining authorities, globally, to grant, pardon or simply release all those detained for exercising their human rights.

The Secretary-General’s new Vision of the Rule of Law places people and their rights at the centre of the United Nations’ efforts to strengthen the rule of law, nationally and internationally. This Vision reinforces the notion of people-centred justice – so, rather than focusing on formal institutions as a starting point for the rule of law, seeking to understand the justice needs of people and design solutions to respond.

Our efforts to support States in addressing prison related challenges should be guided by this new vision on the rule of law. Within this vision, our Office stands ready to support States, civil society and other stakeholders in this endeavour as we pursue justice, rights and dignity for all.  Thank you.