UN human rights chief spotlights plight of millions of detainees worldwide

2 October 2008
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay

The top United Nations human rights official today called for increased attention to the plight of those worldwide – including some one million children – who are deprived of their liberty and are being held in prisons and other places of detention, often illegally.

“Every day, around the world, there are hundreds of new cases of men, women and children being placed in detention, when they should not be – sometimes in quite inhumane conditions,” Navanethem Pillay told a news conference in Geneva, her first since taking up her post as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights last month.

“In the 21st century, it is high time we took more effective action to reduce this hidden, large-scale violation of human rights,” said Ms. Pillay, adding that while no accurate figures exist, “the number of people around the world who are believed to be held in some form of detention that is unjust or inappropriate probably runs into the millions.”

Ms. Pillay was speaking ahead of the launch of the Dignity and Justice for Detainees Initiative, set to begin on 6 October, which aims to increase the pressure on States, parliaments, judiciaries, and other relevant institutions to abolish, or at least reduce, arbitrary and unlawful detention. It also seeks to ensure that conditions in prisons and other places of detention are brought in line with minimum international standards.

“We are not against prisons and detention centres per se – but they should be reserved for those who really deserve to be there according to the extensive, detailed and fundamentally sound international standards governing criminal justice,” she said.

The High Commissioner pointed out that among those that are often illegally detained are people with disabilities, immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, as well as journalists, human rights defenders and political activists.

“There are people just like you and me who are sitting in jails across the world today, who should not be there,” said Ms. Pillay.

While she welcomed the Myanmar Government’s recent release of seven political prisoners, she added that it was a very small step considering there is estimated to be more than 2,000 political activists currently in detention in that country. “I urge the Government to release them all as soon as possible.”

She highlighted in particular the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, the pro-democracy leader and Nobel laureate who has been under house arrest for the past 12 years, noting that she “has in fact served a sentence that far exceeds that served by many hardened criminals.”

The High Commissioner also welcomed the decision of the United States Supreme Court in June that the country’s constitution extends to foreigners being held in Guantánamo Bay and that they have the right to challenge their detention in the civilian court system.

“Those detainees in Guantánamo, some of whom have been there for up to six years, have the right to a prompt review of the reasons for their detention. They also have an unequivocal right not to be sent to places where there is a risk of torture,” she stated.


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