From January 28 to 31, 2014, the United Nations’ open-ended Intergovernmental Expert Group on the revision of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) will hold its Third Meeting in Brasilia, Brazil in order to continue the process of revising the SMRs. [UNODC: SMRs] The review process is intended to modernize the SMRs to reflect developments in human rights law and criminal justice since these standards were first adopted in 1955, and to continue promoting safety, security and humane conditions for prisoners. The UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODC) is leading the process, along with the active participation of various States and civil society organizations.
Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners
The Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners constitute one of the most comprehensive soft-law frameworks concerning the rights of prisoners and the administration of penal and correctional institutions. The SMRs were first adopted by the UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders in 1955, and later approved by the UN Economic and Social Council (UNESOC) through two resolutions 663 (XXIV) of 31 July 1957 and 2076 (LXII) of 13 May 1977. UN General Assembly Resolution 2858, Human Rights in the Administration of Justice, further recommended that UN Member States adhere to the SMRs in their own national legislation. See UN G.A. Res. 2858 (XXVI), Human Rights in the Administration of Justice, 20 December 1971, para. 2. Although the SMRs do not constitute a legally binding document, they are continuously referenced by various human rights bodies and provide practical and legal guidance in interpreting States’ human rights obligations regarding conditions of detention. See, e.g., I/A Court H.R., Winston Caesar v. Trinidad and Tobago, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of 11 March 2005. Series C No. 123; ECtHR, Dickson v. the United Kingdom, no. 44362/04, Judgment of 4 December 2007.
Topics of Discussion at the Third Meeting
To prepare for the upcoming Third Meeting of the Intergovernmental Expert Group, the Secretariat to the Governing Bodies of the UNODC has called for submissions from States regarding the nine areas of review identified in earlier meetings of the Intergovernmental Expert Group. [UNODC: SMRs] These nine areas are:
(a) Respect for prisoners’ inherent dignity and value as human beings (rules 6, para. 1; 57-59; and 60, para. 11);
(b) Medical and health services (rules 22-26; 52; 62; and 71, para. 2);
(c) Disciplinary action and punishment, including the role of medical staff, solitary confinement and reduction of diet (rules 27, 29, 31 and 32);
(d) Investigations of all deaths in custody, as well as of any signs or allegations of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of prisoners (rules 7, 44 bis and 54 bis);
(e) Protection and special needs of vulnerable groups deprived of their liberty, taking into consideration countries in difficult circumstances (rules 6 and 7);
(f) The right of access to legal representation (rules 30; 35, para. 1; 37; and 93);
(g) Complaints and independent inspection (rules 36 and 55);
(h) The replacement of outdated terminology (rules 22-26, 62, 82 and 83 and various others);
(i) Training of relevant staff to implement the Standard Minimum Rules (rule 47);
See Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, Draft Resolution VI, Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, E/RES/2013/35, in Official Records of the Economic and Social Council, 2013, Supplement No. 10 (E/2013/30), p. 20. The Secretariat has compiled all documentation as received by September 30, 2013 into a working paper, which will be presented and discussed at the Third Meeting of the Intergovernmental Expert Group. [UNODC: SMRs]
In order to contribute to the review process, the Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Méndez, presented his thematic report on the revision of the SMRs to the 68th Session of the United Nations General Assembly on October 22, 2013. His report focused on the international standards prohibiting torture and ill-treatment, their relationship to standards regulating the treatment of prisoners, and areas in which the SMRs must be updated to take into account current realities. In his address to the General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur explained that considerable revision to the SMRs was necessary due to the fact that the rules currently lack any provision regarding the absolute prohibition of torture and other forms of ill-treatment. [OHCHR News] Mr. Méndez further explained that revising the SMRs was essential to address the growth of prison populations worldwide, especially considering that resource constraints could lead to poorer conditions that may amount to ill-treatment or torture. [OHCHR News]
The SMRs Review Process
The review process is integral to maintaining the relevance of the SMRs, which many national, regional, and international monitoring and inspection mechanisms use to assess the administration of detention facilities and the treatment of the individuals therein. The UN General Assembly in December 2010 requested the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) to establish an open-ended intergovernmental expert group tailored towards exchanging information on best practices, national legislation, and international law in order to modernize the SMRs. See UN G.A. Res. 65/230, Twelfth United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, A/RES/65/230, 1 April 2011, para. 10.
Following Resolution 65/230, the UNODC organized two preparatory expert meetings, the outcomes of which were compiled in a Background Note later discussed at the First Meeting of the Intergovernmental Expert Group, which took place in Vienna in October 2011. The First Meeting concluded that while the SMRs had mostly stood the test of time, certain topics required revision and those changes should not lower the existing standard. See UNODC, Report on the Meeting of the Expert Group on the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners held in Vienna from 31 January to 2 February 2012, UNODC/CCPJC/EG.6/2012/1, 16 February 2012, para. 4. The First Intergovernmental Expert Meeting also put forth the nine areas of recommendation for primary focus, identified above. Furthermore, emphasis was placed on the need to further international efforts and technical cooperation in improving implementation of the SMRs. See id., para. 40.
The Secretariat then reported on the work of the First Meeting of the Intergovernmental Expert Group to the 21st Session of the CCPCJ. See Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, Work of the Expert Group on the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, E/CN.15/2012/18, 15 February 2012. The CCPCJ approved a resolution for adoption by the General Assembly, which authorized the Intergovernmental Expert Group to continue its work. See UN G.A. Res 67/188, Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, A/RES/67/188, 12 March 2013.
Prior to the Second Meeting of the Intergovernmental Expert Group, which took place in Buenos Aires from December 11 to 13, 2012, the Secretariat drafted a Working Paper that examined: (1) the international standards relevant to the nine preliminary areas of focus; (2) specific rules in the SMRs which require revision; and, (3) proposals for discussion amongst Member States. The Second Meeting developed specific areas of discussion under the nine priority topics. The CCPCJ again approved a resolution for adoption by the General Assembly, which authorized the Intergovernmental Expert Group to continue its work, invited Member States to submit to the Secretariat proposals for revising the nine preliminary areas of focus, and instructed the Secretariat to prepare a working paper in preparation of its upcoming Third Intergovernmental Expert Meeting. See Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, Report on the Twenty-Second Session (7 December 2012 and 22-26 April 2013), E/CN.15/2013/27.
For more information, see the Anti-Torture Initiative’s timeline of the SMRs Review Process. New reports and documentation will also be placed on UNODC’s website for the SMRs as they become available.