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UN Prisoners’ Rights Meeting: US Puts the Brakes on Progress

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David Fathi,
Director, National Prison Project
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December 18, 2012

The U.N. meeting in Buenos Aires on uniform rules for the treatment of prisoners, which concluded last week, was a significant step toward progressive reform, as the resulting Draft Report makes clear. Unfortunately, due in large part to positions taken by the U.S. delegation, an opportunity to make even greater progress was lost.

This is the first revision of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) since they were promulgated in 1955. At some points during the U.N. Intergovernmental Expert Group Meeting, the U.S. delegation made positive proposals. At other times it seemed to fear too much justice.

It opposed a proposal that would have allowed a prisoner facing disciplinary charges to be represented by a lawyer, even at his or her own expense. It pushed, unsuccessfully, for removal of a reference to health care being provided to prisoners free of charge – presumably because many U.S. prisons and jails charge prisoners for medical care. (The Brazilian delegation objected to the deletion, and the language remained in the Draft Report.)

As I noted last week, the U.S. delegation was particularly hostile to any meaningful limits on solitary confinement, such as a maximum duration or the exclusion of vulnerable populations like children and persons with mental illness.

Most significantly, as the meeting was drawing to a close, the U.S. suddenly insisted that the Draft Report be amended to state that none of the recommendations hammered out over the previous three days had actually been agreed to. Instead, the Draft Report now says only that “[t]he Expert Group identified for consideration the following issues and Rules for the revision of the Standard Minimum Rules” (emphasis added).

This unfortunate language would allow the U.S. (or any other government) to later take the position that it didn’t agree to anything in Buenos Aires, thus jeopardizing the progress made at that meeting. Fears that the U.S. may be planning such a move were heightened when the U.S. delegation also opposed continuation of the Expert Group, which includes non-governmental organizations like the ACLU, proposing instead that future discussions be held only among government representatives.

Still, the glass is more than half full. No delegation disagreed that the SMRs should be revised, and that revisions should not result in a lowering of existing standards. Many delegations, including the U.S., made positive proposals that, as a practical matter, will be difficult for them to repudiate. And solitary confinement, which was not mentioned in the original SMRs, is now squarely on the table, with a number of delegations willing to support strict limits on its use.

So there’s progress, but we’ve still got work to do. The next step in the SMR review process is the meeting of the UN Crime Commission in April. Internationally, like domestically, advancing prisoners’ rights is a long-term struggle – and the ACLU will be there for as long as it takes.

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