Protecting the rights of prisoners has never been easy. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 did not specifically refer to prisoners, although the rights it laid out—including the prohibition of torture, the right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence—implicitly covered them. Seven years later, in 1955, the First United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders adopted the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. This was an important start, and in 2015, the United Nations General Assembly adopted expanded rules, known as the “Nelson Mandela Rules”, in honour of arguably the most celebrated prisoner of the twentieth century.   

The Rules are based on an obligation to treat all prisoners with respect for their inherent dignity and value as human beings, and to prohibit torture and other forms of ill-treatment. 

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was the agency leading the revision process. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) ensured that the revised rules reflected international human rights standards adopted since the 1950s. As a result, the Mandela Rules provide States with detailed guidelines for protecting the rights of persons deprived of their liberty, from pre-trial detainees to sentenced prisoners. 

The Rules are based on an obligation to treat all prisoners with respect for their inherent dignity and value as human beings, and to prohibit torture and other forms of ill-treatment. They offer detailed guidance on a wide variety of issues ranging from disciplinary measures to medical services. For example, they prohibit the reduction of a prisoner’s food or water, as well as the use of instruments of restraint that are inherently degrading or painful, such as chains or irons.  

The Rules restrict the use of solitary confinement as a measure of last resort, to be used only in exceptional circumstances. Mandela found solitary confinement to be “the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There was no end and no beginning; there’s only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks”.  

At the Robben Island prison in South Africa, Mandela led a movement of civil disobedience that led to better conditions for inmates. His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, describes how the food improved, short trousers were replaced with long ones, newspapers were permitted and manual labour was discontinued.  

The Nelson Mandela Rules emphasize that the provision of health care for prisoners is a State responsibility, and that the relationship between health-care professionals and prisoners is governed by the same ethical and professional standards as those applicable to patients in the community. Moreover, the Rules oblige prison health-care services to evaluate and care for the physical and mental health of prisoners, including those with special needs. 

The minimum requirements contained in the Nelson Mandela Rules are more relevant today than ever. 

The minimum requirements contained in the Nelson Mandela Rules are more relevant today than ever. Although crime rates are in decline in many parts of the world, prison populations are increasing. It is estimated that there are well over 10 million prisoners worldwide, excluding people detained by the police or in other administrative detention where there has been no formal decision to charge or prosecute. Moreover, the number of persons serving life sentences increased by 84 per cent between 2000 and 2014. Global trends also show no decline in prison violence worldwide, with little guarantee of a safe and secure environment for many prisoners. 

Mindful of these concerns, and guided by the Nelson Mandela RulesOHCHR works to ensure that the human rights of persons deprived of liberty are protected. In 2018, for instance, it conducted over 2,000 visits to places of detention. Through inspection visits and assistance programs, we support States in their efforts to improve prison conditions. Last year, after conducting 121 inspection visits to prisons in Yemen, we, in coordination with humanitarian agencies, ensured that the wards for women and juveniles in one prison received a solar power system, food items, blankets and water filters. In the Occupied Palestinian Territory, regular visits by human rights officers to Palestinian detention and interrogation facilities since 2011 have contributed to a decrease in cases of ill-treatment. 

Assistant Secretary-General Andrew Gilmour visits the central prison in Kasaba, close to Lubumbashi, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, during a mission to the country in 2016. UN/OHCHR

The United Nations has also utilized prison visits to monitor and improve the conditions of detention in high-profile individual cases in Colombia and other countries. This has resulted, in some instances, in increased visits from the prison medical team, timely provision of medication and access to legal defense. 

OHCHR pays special attention to the importance of adequate accommodation under the Mandela Rules. Through its Prison Reform Support Programme in Cambodia, for instance, we initiated engineering assistance to build windows in prison cells, install heat extractor ventilation, erect internal fences that create areas for prisoners to access the outdoors, and improve sanitation and access to potable water.  

Regarding the rights to health and education of prisoners, the United Nations has helped equip nearly 90 per cent of provincial referral hospitals in Cambodia with secure rooms that facilitate the hospitalization of sick prisoners, thus enabling them to receive care without being restrained. OHCHR has also worked with local authorities to improve the education of persons deprived of their liberty, including by providing access to books and connecting prisons with vocational training opportunities. 

Implementing the Nelson Mandela Rules also involves providing legal assistance and advice to States and prisoners alike. In Madagascar, advocacy efforts resulted in the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture in 2017. This is significant, given that the Protocol mandates United Nations experts to visit prisons to help improve conditions and prevent ill-treatment.  

Defending the absolute prohibition of torture has led us to work with other partners on an initiative aimed at developing a set of principles and safeguards on “non-coercive investigative interviewing” methods for police and other law enforcement agencies. It is widely recognized that using torture to extract information is both immoral and illegal. Less understood—despite the mass of evidence—is that such methods are also ineffective and indeed counter-productive for the simple reason that people undergoing torture are liable to say anything to stop the pain and humiliation, thereby frequently giving interrogators information that is wholly untrue. This can discredit the entire judicial and police processes in the country concerned, and also lead to the wrong people being convicted. The initiative currently being discussed is designed to bring as many law enforcement personnel as possible into the process to increase understanding about the sheer ineffectiveness of coercive interrogation.  

As some of the examples above illustrate, the United Nations continues to honor Nelson Mandela’s legacy by working closely with States and civil society to safeguard the human rights of persons deprived of their liberty. And, importantly, we are working with persons deprived of liberty themselves to protect their dignity.  

As the saying goes, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” Nelson Mandela clearly agreed. As he himself said, “No one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” The Rules adopted in his name have become the worldwide blueprint for Governments to prove their performance. That the Rules have been so broadly embraced is reason for hope. But practically realizing Mandela’s noble vision, and the spirit and letter of the Rules, will take courage, commitment and every form of encouragement to Governments.   

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