UN rights expert urges legal pact to end ‘global crisis’ in detention facilities

26 October 2010

With prisoners around the world living in inhuman conditions, a United Nations independent expert today called for a global convention on the rights of detainees to ensure that their human rights are respected.

In what he calls the “global crisis of detention,” Manfred Nowak, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, told reporters in New York that many detainees are held in overcrowded facilities that are often intended to only hold people for up to 48 hours before a judge decides whether they should be released or brought to a proper remand centre.

Earlier this year, he visited Jamaica, where he found “the most appalling conditions – dark cells, filthy, infected with cockroaches and other insects – where many people are kept for 24 hours a day in an overcrowded cell.”

Mr. Nowak, whose mandate wraps up this week, said that in some cases, detainees had to fight to find a place to sleep on the floor, with some living in these conditions for many months or even years. “That might be tolerable for a night, but not for up to five years, as I found in Jamaica.”

In most countries of the world, he noted, conditions in prisons and police custody, as well as sometimes in psychiatric institutions and remand centres, “[amount] to inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Although there are soft law standards on the treatment of detainees, he called for a “real binding treaty law that spells out, for instance, that you should have a right, for at least one hour a day, to leave your cell, to go out to the fresh air, to see the sun.”

The expert also told journalists today that he estimates that one out of every 10 UN Member States practices torture, noting that of the 18 countries he visited in his capacity as Special Rapporteur, all but Denmark carried out the practice.

Mr. Nowak’s presentation of his final report to the General Assembly committee dealing with social, cultural and humanitarian issues wrapped up today.

He told the committee that during his six years as Special Rapporteur, he “saw the dark side of life: extreme misery, poverty, fear, desperation, brutality, anxiety and powerlessness.”

But his experience was also “most rewarding,” he said. “To feel that the most dangerous criminals and the most marginalized outcasts of our societies are human beings like you and me, have the same human needs and rights and do not wish to be treated ‘worse than animals’ by itself is a learning experience I wish for everyone.”

Mr. Nowak will be succeeded as Special Rapporteur by Juan Mendez, who has previously served as the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide.


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