UN experts urge States to do more to respect rights of detainees

6 October 2008

A group of 13 independent United Nations experts today urged that the human rights of the millions of detainees worldwide be respected, as the world body begins a week-long campaign aimed at stepping up pressure on States, parliaments and other bodies to abolish, or at least reduce, arbitrary and unlawful detention.

“Deprivation of liberty as such, whether lawful or not, makes persons extremely vulnerable to a broad range of human rights violations,” the experts said in a statement issued today at the start of Dignity and Justice for Detainees Week – a global initiative launched by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The initiative, which runs until 12 October, also seeks to ensure that conditions in prisons and other places of detention are brought in line with minimum international standards.

The experts, all mandate holders of the Special Procedures of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, visit places of detention in many countries and receive information from all around the world.

“A serious problem we encounter is that often there are no proper records of those deprived of liberty, or, worse, they are held in places of detention that are not officially recognized,” they stated.

“It is also of great concern that many people should not be deprived of their liberty at all, since their detention is arbitrary. Others are being detained solely on the basis of administrative orders unrelated to the criminal justice system, for example irregular migrants.”

In addition to migrants, other groups that are often illegally detained are people with disabilities, refugees and asylum-seekers, as well as journalists, human rights defenders and political activists.

Announcing the initiative last week, High Commissioner Navanethem Pillay stressed it is time to take more effective action to reduce this “hidden, large-scale violation of human rights,” noting that the number of people around the world who are believed to be held in some form of detention that is unjust or inappropriate runs into the millions.

In their statement, the experts noted that persons deprived of their liberty run an increased risk of being subjected to torture and ill-treatment, and in some extreme cases, to enforced disappearance.

“The range of forms of violence we have witnessed in detention facilities is wide and includes beatings and electroshocks to various parts of the body, threats, stress positions, burning, putting needles under fingernails, shooting, water boarding and sexual violence. Unfortunately this is by no means an exhaustive list, and new methods keep being invented,” they stated.

“Since violations of detainees’ rights by definition take place behind closed doors and, in many places, no effective channels exist to denounce them, injustice done to detainees all too often remains unknown of and unaccounted for,” the experts added.

The group called on all States to do all they can to ensure that detainees are treated with respect and dignity. “We also appeal to States to provide for effective complaints and monitoring mechanisms in places of detention, including efficient avenues to challenge the legality of detention and access to legal counsel, with a view to making human rights a reality for them.”

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UN human rights chief spotlights plight of millions of detainees worldwide

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.