New “Mandela Rules” Aim to Improve Detainee Treatment

An ICRC Delegate visits a prison in South America, ©ICRC/Jesús Cornejo

An ICRC Delegate visits a prison in South America, ©ICRC/Jesús Cornejo

Description: A 60-year-old set of rules outlining minimum standards for prisoner treatment have been given an overhaul and a new name following a four-year revision process led by the UN. The ICRC will take part in a panel in DC on July 17 that will examine the reforms, which come at a time when the situation in prisons worldwide appears to be deteriorating.

On July 17, ICRC DC’s Protection Coordinator, Marc Linning, will participate in an event at the Washington-based United States Institute for Peace (USIP) that will examine recent revisions to a 60-year-old set of detention standards, known as the “Standard Minimum Rules (SMRs) for the Treatment of Prisoners.”

This revised body of “soft law” has been renamed the “Mandela Rules” after the former South African leader, Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years behind bars. (Incidentally, the ICRC visited Mr Mandela regularly while he was imprisoned at both Robben Island and Pollsmoor. Friday’s event in DC is being held ahead of “Mandela Day,” which is celebrated each year on July 18 to mark his birthday.)

At the USIP forum, panelists, including senior State Department and ACLU representatives, will discuss the significance of updating the outdated SMRs and their experiences during the negotiation process. They will also examine how best to ensure implementation of the new rules. 

The ICRC was asked to serve as an expert observer to the UN-led intergovernmental review process thanks to its long history of visiting people held in connection with armed conflicts and other situations of violence.

“Last year, the ICRC visited over 1,600 places of detention worldwide, enabling us to reach around 800,000 detainees to monitor their treatment and conditions, so we welcomed the opportunity to participate in the process and help raise awareness of this important new guidance tool, which will be implemented on the ground,” says Linning, who oversees the ICRC’s detention activities at Guantanamo Bay.  

“We stressed, in particular, that the guidelines should reflect advances made since the mid-50s through specific treaties and non-treaty based standards related to detention, as well as best practices and recent progress in correctional science,” he added.

Although not legally binding, the Mandela Rules provide guidelines for international and domestic law for people held in prisons and other forms of custody. They provide practical guidance on how prisons should be managed safely, securely, and humanely, and offer a key standard against which to assess the extent to which States have attained minimum standards in protecting the life and dignity of detainees.

Their revision focused on nine thematic areas, including health care in prisons, investigations of deaths in custody, disciplinary measures, including strict limitations on the use of solitary confinement and physical restraints, and the professionalization of prison staff and independent inspections.

“With more than 11 million people currently living in detention worldwide, and worrying indications that the situation in prisons globally is deteriorating, the new Mandela Rules couldn’t be more relevant and timely,” says Linning. “The ICRC certainly welcomes these efforts to ensure universal respect for detainees' inherent dignity and value as human beings.”

The new rules are to be submitted for approval to the UN General Assembly this fall.

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