Blog of Rights

ACLU Advocates for Human Rights of Prisoners at UN meeting in Vienna

By Katie Haas, Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project at 4:59pm

The ACLU is in Vienna this week, at the 22nd session of the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. One resolution the Commission will consider concerns how to move forward with the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) review process. The SMRs, originally adopted in 1955, have been used for decades to advocate for humane treatment of prisoners and detainees, and are, in the words of the U.S. State Department, "the most important set of guidelines" on the treatment of prisoners. International human rights law has developed a great deal since the rules were first drafted, and an updated version of the SMRs is necessary to reflect those changes. To this end, the United Nations General Assembly initiated a review process to amend and update the rules to "reflect recent advances in correctional science and best practices."

The ACLU joined a coalition of NGOs advocating for progressive amendments aimed at strengthening this historic document by bringing it in line with international law and norms regarding the rights of people deprived of their liberty. We attended an expert meeting at the University of Essex last October, and also attended the U.N. Inter-Governmental Expert Group Meeting in Buenos Aires last December. This week the Crime Commission is set to extend the IGEM mandate to complete the review process through input from U.N. member states, U.N. bodies and civil society, and recommend set of amendments to be adopted next year. A particular focus of the ACLU has been the need for more robust protections from long-term solitary confinement, which is considered a form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment that can amount to torture. Other areas highlighted by the coalition have included the reduction of prison violence and the need to explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and more.

Together with Amnesty International and Penal Reform International (PRI), the ACLU and other groups submitted a statement calling on the Crime Commission to endorse the recommendations of the IGEM thus far, and to extend the group's mandate to facilitate further progress in revising the Standard Minimum Rules. The ACLU will also present at a side event tomorrow on solitary confinement and the challenges of humane forms of punishment.

The process of revising the SMRs has already resulted in a broad consensus that the rules should be updated and that no standards should be lowered, and on some desired changes. This is important progress, but as the ACLU has stated, more discussion will be necessary to create a document that incorporates progressive development of international human rights instruments pertaining to the treatment of prisoners.

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