Mandela Rules adopted for prisoners

25 May 2015

The Mandela Rules could herald a new era of respect for prisoners’ human rights, according to Amnesty International.

This follows the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, which adopted crucial revisions of 60-year-old international standards on treatment of prisoners at a meeting on 22 May in Vienna.

The Mandela Rules include extensive revisions and additions to the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which date back to 1955. It is expected the UN General Assembly will adopt the new rules later this year.

They have been named the Mandela Rules to honour the legacy of the late South African leader, and are an essential update of the original rules adopted at the very first Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Geneva in 1955.

“The Mandela Rules could herald in a new era in which prisoners’ human rights are fully respected,” said Yuval Ginbar, the legal adviser at Amnesty International, who attended the Vienna meeting.

“The rules, if fully implemented, would help turn imprisonment from a wasted time of suffering and humiliation into one used for personal development leading to release, to the benefit of society as a whole.”

Basic principles

The Mandela Rules now contain an expanded section of basic principles, including the absolute prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The independence of health care staff is assured, and extensive restrictions are placed on disciplinary measures, including the prohibition of solitary confinement beyond 15 days.

Clear and detailed instructions are provided on issues such as cell and body searches, registration and record keeping, investigations into deaths and complaints of torture and other ill-treatment, the needs of specific groups, independent inspections of prisons, the right to legal representation and more.

Amnesty International joined a coalition of NGOs and academics which took an active part in the five-year process, working for a progressive redrafting of the rules.

Following agreement on the rules, the executive director the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Yury Fedotov, said the world now had an updated blueprint offering practical guidance on how prisons should be managed safely, securely and humanely.

Countries are encouraged to reflect the Mandela Rules in their national legislation so that prison administrators can apply them in their daily work.

At their core, the rules stress the overriding principle that all prisoners shall be treated with respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings. “Most importantly”, said Fedotov, “the rules stress that prisoners will be protected from torture and other cruel or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. This means the rules probably represent one of the most significant human rights advances in recent years.”

In the words of the late Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who spent 27 years of his life in prison: “It is said that 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.”

SAinfo reporter