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United Nations: Revised Standards for Treatment of Prisoners Approved by Commission

(May 26, 2015) On May 18, 2015, Juan E. Méndez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, sent an open letter to the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, calling for the adoption of the amended version of the U.N.’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The standards are recommended, non-binding provisions that the United Nations suggests that member states follow. (Open Letter to the Chair of the 24th Session of the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (May 18, 2015), Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) website; Matt Belenky, UN Rights Expert Calls for Adoption of Revised Standard for Treatment of Prisoners, JURIST (May 20, 2015); Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (adopted in 1955 & approved by the Economic and Social Council by resolutions in 1957 and 1977), U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime website; Press Release, OHCHR, UN Expert Calls for Adoption of a Minimum Set of Fundamental Human Rights for Those in Detention (May 18, 2015).)

The revision was approved on May 22. (‘Mandela Rules’ on Prisoner Treatment Adopted in Landmark Revision of UN Standard, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL (May 22, 2015).)

Méndez’s letter was addressed to the Chair of the 24th Session of the Commission and noted that the process of revising the Rules was begun by the adoption of a U.N. General Assembly Resolution in December 2010. (Open Letter, supra.) The Resolution invited the Commission to review and, if necessary, update its criminal justice standards. (Twelfth United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, G.A. Res. 65/230, U.N. Doc. A/RES/65/230 (Dec. 21, 2010), ¶ 4, U.N. website.)

The changes include increased protection from torture and mistreatment for detainees; among the specific amendments is an added prohibition on the use of solitary confinement for more than 15 days. The new Rules include an absolute ban on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment and an insistence that independent healthcare professionals, who have a duty not to participate in such treatment, have a role in observing and reporting offenses related to treatment of prisoners. (Press Release, supra.)

Speaking about the updated version of the Rules, Méndez stated,

The time is now to adopt the revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners; anything less would send a negative signal to the international community. … The adoption and implementation of these rules reinforces human rights principles and provides greater protection for persons deprived of their liberty, updated procedural safeguards, and more effective guidance to national prison administrations. (Open Letter, supra.)

Future Steps

Now that the Commission has approved the revised Rules, the next step is for them to be reviewed by the U.N. General Assembly, in December 2015. (Belenky, supra.) In recommending that the new Rules move forward for review in the U.N. and that all countries adopt them, Méndez has suggested that they be referred to as the “Mandela Rules.” He noted that “[s]uch a title would honour the great Statesman and inspirational leader who served many years in prison in the name of freedom and democracy, by ensuring that all those deprived of their liberty are guaranteed a minimum set of fundamental human rights.” (Open Letter, supra.)