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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL HOLDS PANEL DISCUSSION ON UPHOLDING THE HUMAN RIGHTS OF PRISONERS, INCLUDING WOMEN PRISONERS AND OFFENDERS, AND STARTS INTERACTIVE DIALOGUE ON VENEZUELA

Meeting Summaries

 

The Human Rights Council this morning held its annual panel discussion on technical cooperation and capacity building, under the theme of upholding the human rights of prisoners, including women prisoners and offenders : enhancing technical cooperation and capacity building in the implementation of the Nelson Mandela Rules and the Bangkok Rules. The Council also started an interactive dialogue on the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights' report on the independence of the justice system and access to justice in Venezuela.

Georgette Gagnon, Director of the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noting the specific needs of women deprived of their liberty, and the significant increase in their numbers, said there was a clear need for a much deeper understanding of why women were increasingly imprisoned ; their pathways to offending ; the barriers they may face in accessing justice ; and their rights as suspects, defendants and convicted prisoners. Only in this way could national authorities and partners devise and implement programmes that effectively addressed root causes and human rights gaps.

Sek Wannamethee, Permanent Representative of Thailand to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to translate existing international standards into practice.

Wisit Wisitsora-at, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice of Thailand, speaking via video, said the standard of health care service in Thai prisons was now equivalent to the services available outside prisons. The Government was also working on expanding prison space. There would be more than 60,000 square metres added for dormitory units. In terms of rehabilitation, Thailand strove for meaningful rehabilitation, through voluntary work and vocational training, which helped prisoners to reintegrate into society.

Sabri Bachtobji, Permanent Representative of Tunisia to the United Nations Office at Geneva, underlined the devastating effects of COVID-19 across the globe, especially the consequences to already marginalised communities. Tunisia had been active in the enactment of United Nations resolution 2532 on 1 July 2020 that allowed the international community to enable a humanitarian truce. The Tunisian approach to dealing with prisoners’ rights in the time of COVID-19 had been successful, supported by a strong legal framework.

Olivia Rope, Director of Policy and International Advocacy, Penal Reform International, speaking via video message, stated that for the 11 million people in prison, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to represent a threat to their health and lives. They were isolated, separated, and many were effectively in solitary confinement. Such regimes put in place to protect from an infection would have long-lasting and indeed catastrophic consequences on the mental health of prisoners and prison staff. A mere 6 per cent or less of the global prison population had benefited from release mechanisms.

Sven Pfeiffer, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer, Justice Section, Division for Operations, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, speaking via video message, underlined the importance of mainstreaming a gender perspective to combat discrimination and ensure that no one was left behind. For instance, it supported prison-based social reintegration programmes in Bolivia. The programmes had taught skills to women prisoners that they could apply in the construction industry, including building, metal work and carpentry. Prison reform was as much about the human rights of individual prisoners as it was about public safety and public health, he added.

In the ensuing debate, speakers emphasised that technical cooperation and capacity building were an essential part of the work of the Council in promoting and protecting human rights, and welcomed the panel discussion. They agreed that demand-driven technical cooperation based on genuine dialogue could support State efforts in improving practices and capacities. Relevant international organizations had a constructive role to play in this within their respective mandates.

Speakers were the European Union, Azerbaijan on behalf of Non-Aligned Movement, Viet Nam on behalf of the Association of South East Asian Nations, UN Women, Qatar, Pakistan, Senegal, Armenia, Venezuela, India, Philippines (video message), Iran, Cuba, Botswana, Costa Rica, Iraq, Morocco, Egypt, Nepal, Indonesia, Vanuatu, Maldives, Cambodia, Jordan and Brazil.

Also taking the floor were the following non-governmental organizations : Conectas Direitos Humanos, Friends World Committee for Consultation, Justiça Global, International Service for Human Rights, International Drug Policy Consortium (video message), Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain Inc., Global Institute for Water, Environment and Health, Institut International pour les droits et le Développement, and Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

The Council then began an interactive dialogue on the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights' report on the independence of the justice system and access to justice in Venezuela.

Nada Al-Nashif, Deputy United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, noted the Venezuelan Government’s efforts to improve access to justice and independence of the justice system, as well as initiatives by the Attorney General’s Office to investigate human rights violations allegedly committed by security forces. The report found that far-reaching reforms needed to be implemented to enable the judiciary to effectively fulfil its role as guarantor of human rights.

Venezuela, speaking as a concerned country via video message, reiterated its rejection of specific reports on sovereign States, as the practice attacked the principles of multilateralism on which the work of the Council, and the entire United Nations, was based. The principles of universality, objectivity and non-selectivity must be applied, to avoid the manipulation and double standards that were at play in the creation of this resolution. Venezuela was a sovereign country with many challenges ahead as a result of unilateral coercive measures put in place against it by the United States, and terrorist activity funded from abroad.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers reiterated that the crisis in Venezuela could only be addressed through a peaceful and negotiated solution among Venezuelans, which must be based on credible democratic elections. Speakers denounced foreign interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela, saying that it was underproductive and undermined the dialogue for the promotion and protection of human rights.

Speaking in the interactive dialogue were European Union, Peru on behalf of a group of countries (video message), Germany, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Japan, France, Russian Federation, Ecuador, Cuba, Australia, Portugal, Spain (video message), Luxembourg, Brazil, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Netherlands, Austria, Slovenia, Uruguay, Switzerland and Georgia.

The Council will next meet at 3 p.m. this afternoon to conclude the interactive dialogue on Venezuela. It will then hear the presentation of the report of the Working Group on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises on the eighth session of the Forum on Business and Human Rights. This will be followed by an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Annual Thematic Panel Discussion on Technical Cooperation and Capacity Building

Upholding the Human Rights of Prisoners, including Women Prisoners and Offenders : Enhancing Technical Cooperation and Capacity Building in the Implementation of the Nelson Mandela Rules and the Bangkok Rules

Documentation

The Council has before it the Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on the Enhancement of technical cooperation and capacity-building in the field of human rights (A/HRC/RES/18/18).

The Council has before it the Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on 27 September 2019 on Enhancement of technical cooperation and capacity-building in the field of human rights (A/HRC/RES/42/32).

The Council has before it the Report of the Office of the United Nations High

Commissioner for Human Rights on Technical cooperation and capacity-building to promote and protect the rights of persons deprived of their liberty : implementation of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Noncustodial Measures for Women Offenders (A/HRC/44/37).

Opening Statements

GEORGETTE GAGNON, Director of the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights , said that globally, women represented between two and 10 per cent of prison populations, but their numbers were increasing rapidly – more rapidly than the increase of male prisoners. Many women detainees faced inhuman and degrading treatment during arrest, interrogation and in custody. The Bangkok Rules addressed the specific needs of women detainees and prisoners, and required States to address the pathways that led women to prison, as well as the consequences of their incarceration. The experience of the Office, through numerous technical cooperation programmes across the world, demonstrated that direct assistance projects could have a broad positive impact on the treatment of prisoners and detainees. Across the world, over-incarceration led to over-crowding in places of detention, and a wide range of serious social harms. Country-specific research by the Office and partners on potential alternatives to detention, including gender-specific options, and analysis of the nature of obstacles to full adoption of these, could often help to lift obstacles. The COVID-19 pandemic made this need to promote alternative forms of punishment especially urgent. Many States had responded swiftly to the Office’s recent guidance and calls to reduce overcrowding in prisons and others had closed facilities in the context of COVID-19.

Regarding the specific needs of women deprived of their liberty, and the significant increase in their numbers, there was a clear need for much deeper understanding of why women were increasingly imprisoned ; their pathways to offending ; the barriers they may face in accessing justice ; and their rights as suspects, defendants and convicted prisoners. Only in this way could national authorities and partners devise and implement programmes that effectively addressed root causes and human rights gaps. Citing several of its support programmes, Ms. Gagnon said the Office would continue to work closely with States, other United Nations agencies and a wide range of stakeholders to uphold the human rights of all people deprived of their liberty, which was particularly critical in these exceptional times.

SEK WANNAMETHEE, Permanent Representative of Thailand to the United Nations Office at Geneva , noted that the purpose of the panel was to share experiences and have a constructive dialogue on the human rights of prisoners, with a particular focus on women prisoners. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to translate existing international standards into practice. The practical experiences on the ground were important, said Mr. Wannamethee, as he introduced a video from the Ministry of Justice of Thailand.

WISIT WISITSORA-AT, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Justice of Thailand, said that on 30 June 2020, the Cabinet had endorsed the fourth national human rights plan for the period 2019-2022. This plan was a key policy framework for human rights at the national level to ensure the commitment of the Royal Thai Government to guarantee the enjoyment of human rights for every individual. The standard of health care service in Thai prisons was now equivalent to the services available outside prisons. The Royal “Good Health, Good Heart” project, which was initiated under the royal patronage of His Majesty the King, had enhanced the quality of health care inside prisons. Fortunately, all these efforts had been timely, as the country was confronting the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a result, only two prisoners out of 380,000 had been infected with the COVID-19 virus.

The Government was also working on expanding prison space. There would be more than 60,000 square meters added for dormitory units. In terms of rehabilitation, it strove to ensure meaningful rehabilitation, through voluntary work and vocational training, which helped prisoners to reintegrate into society. In order to make its efforts sustainable and to promote access to employment for ex-offenders, the National Commission for Justice Administration Management had approved a “Criminal Record Bill” to improve the collection, management, and disclosure of records so as not to stigmatize ex-convicts, and give them a fresh start in their new lives. These were just some examples of Thailand’s developments on human rights. Thailand would like to reaffirm its commitment to promote and protect the human rights and dignity of all, including persons behind bars. Thailand believed in a human-centred approach. It stood ready to share its experience and to cooperate with the international community so that no one was left behind.

Statements by the Panellists

SABRI BACHTOBJI, Permanent Representative of Tunisia to the United Nations Office at Geneva , underlined the devastating effects of COVID-19 across the globe, especially the consequences to already marginalised communities. Tunisia had been active in the enactment of United Nations resolution 2532 on 1 July 2020 that allowed the international community to enable a humanitarian truce. The Tunisian approach to dealing with prisoners’ rights in the time of COVID-19 had been successful, supported by a strong legal framework. With regard to female prisoners, several actions had been taken in accordance with the Nelson Mandela standards, including providing women with their rights, maintaining hygiene standards for wards and dormitories, coordinating with representatives on the protection of children to allow children to visit their mothers in detention centres, contributing with handicraft workshops and providing women with monetary compensation, as well as providing specialised medical help when it was required. There was no hope for a better future for humanity unless all worked together towards a common goal.

OLIVIA ROPE, Director of Policy and International Advocacy, Penal Reform International , speaking via video message, said that for the 11 million people in prison, the COVID-19 pandemic continued to represent a threat to their health and lives. They were isolated, separated, and many were effectively in solitary confinement. Such regimes put in place to protect from an infection would have long-lasting and indeed catastrophic consequences on the mental health of prisoners and prison staff. A mere 6 per cent or less of the global prison population had benefited from release mechanisms. Many COVID-19 related measures had violated rights and, at the very least, made the serving of a prison sentence much harsher and burdensome. Urgent and systemic reform was needed ; this was where the Mandela Rules and the Bangkok Rules came in. These standards needed to guide authorities not only in “normal times” but in times of crisis. Over the past decade, the world had seen greater awareness of the needs of women prisoners as a distinct group because of the Bangkok Rules. Since 2015, there had been some reforms seen in relation to solitary confinement, and better healthcare and training for prison staff, thanks to the Mandela Rules. However, more long-term, systemic reform was needed, rooted in the international standards that guided authorities on the practicalities of a human rights-based approach that respected the dignity of persons detained.

SVEN PFEIFFER, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer, Justice Section, Division for Operations, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime , speaking via video message, said the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime was currently supporting over 40 Member States worldwide with technical cooperation and capacity building, though its Global Prison Challenges Programme and field-based projects. One of its main lessons learned was the importance of mainstreaming a gender perspective, to combat discrimination and ensure that no one was left behind. For instance, it supported prison-based social reintegration programmes in Bolivia. The programmes had taught women prisoners skills that they could apply in the construction industry, including building, metal work and carpentry. Another key lesson was that prison reform was as much about the human rights of individual prisoners as it was about public safety and public health. In fact, investment into the proper treatment of prisoners was proven to reduce re-offending upon release. The health impact had become evident during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic put the spotlight on the systemic challenges that had plagued prisons for decades. Overcrowding, coupled with poor prison conditions and a lack of management capacity and resources, were key obstacles for compliance with international standards. To address these challenges, two elements were crucial. The first one was political will and leadership. A welcome example was the active work of some Member States within the Vienna-based Group of Friends of the Nelson Mandela Rules. The second one was holistic approaches to prison reform.

Discussion

Speakers emphasised that technical cooperation and capacity building were an essential part of the work of the Council in promoting and protecting human rights, and welcomed the panel discussion. Demand-driven technical cooperation based on genuine dialogue could support efforts by States in improving practices and capacities. Relevant international organizations had a constructive role to play in this within their respective mandates. The COVID-19 pandemic had made today’s discussion even timelier, as speakers noted that measures taken to contain the pandemic should not undermine the fundamental rights of detained people. Women in detention and prisons were often forgotten and left behind once in confinement ; their number exceeded 700,000 at the moment and was growing at a faster rate than men. Women were also disproportionately affected by underlying health conditions in detention, and they were at a higher risk of sexual- and gender-based violence in prisons than men.

Speakers noted that many developing countries were unable to fully implement the Bangkok Rules due to resource constraints, asking the panel to provide best practices in this context. Speakers noted that more technical guidance was needed for States to harmonise practices that affected children with incarcerated parents. It was lamentable that in many States, the number of people held in pre-trial detention was equivalent or superior to that of people serving terms after being convicted. Recalling that the Mandela Rules were grounded in the principle of the inherent dignity of all people, speakers emphasized that no pretext could justify torture. While underscoring the value of international cooperation, some speakers warned that politicisation and any form of interference in internal affairs would prove counterproductive. Speakers outlined various prison reform initiatives, such as releasing prisoners, including women prisoners, through assimilation and integration programmes, and integrating maternity wards in places of detention. What were, in the panellists’ opinion, some measures that could be easily implemented to uphold the Mandela Rules and the Bangkok Rules in prisons. Speakers urged States to ease restrictions on prisoners’ ability to make calls and trade letters. They stressed that the uptick in the female carceral population was not due to an increase in criminality, but rather political decisions.

Concluding Remarks

SVEN PFEIFFER, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer, Justice Section, Division for Operations, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime , speaking via video message, said the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime was uniquely placed to promote the rights of children who had parents in prison. Expressing support for the idea of developing a handbook on this matter, he encouraged all interested Member States to contribute financially to this endeavour.

OLIVIA ROPE, Director of Policy and International Advocacy, Penal Reform International , speaking via video message, responding to comments on resource shortages, said that implementing some of the Bangkok Rules and the Mandela Rules could be achieved at little or no cost through a change of mindset and training. Sentences were getting longer and the number of people serving life sentences was increasing. Such trends should be monitored, as this was a key area where improvements could be made.

SABRI BACHTOBJI, Permanent Representative of Tunisia to the United Nations Office at Geneva , said that these were exceptional times. At the heart of the Tunisian approach since the adoption of the new constitution was a question : what kind of society do we want? Accordingly, the prison environment in Tunisia was characterised by institutional efforts to combat torture ; dispel the mystery that surrounded places of detention, that was to open them up ; and instil the prisoners with a feeling of responsibility so that they were able to make a contribution to society upon being released.

SEK WANNAMETHEE, Representative of Thailand to the United Nations Office at Geneva, thanked the panellists for a productive discussion that would contribute to further progress towards the implementation of the Bangkok Rules and the Mandela Rules.

Interactive Dialogue on the Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Venezuela

Documentation

The Council has before it the Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on 27 September 2019 on the Situation of human rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (A/HRC/RES/42/25).

The Council has before it the Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Independence of the justice system and access to justice in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, including for violations of economic and social rights, and the situation of human rights in the Arco Minero del Orinoco region ( A/HRC/44/54 Advance Unedited Version).

Presentation of the Report

NADA AL-NASHIF, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she was pleased to present the report that focused on the independence of the justice system and access to justice in Venezuela, as well as the situation of human rights in the Arco Minero del Orinoco region. Acknowledging the Venezuelan Government’s efforts to cooperate with the Office, she noted that the report reflected information gathered and analysed by the Office of the High Commissioner, including through interviews with victims, witnesses and other sources. The report noted the Government’s efforts to improve access to justice and independence of the justice system, as well as initiatives by the Attorney General’s Office to investigate human rights violations allegedly committed by security forces. The report found that far-reaching reforms needed to be implemented to enable the judiciary to effectively fulfil its role as guarantor of human rights, contribute to accountability for human rights violations, and facilitate access to justice for victims, including women. The report highlighted the continuing use of the military justice system for civilians, which should be exceptional. Anti-terrorism courts had increasingly been used to prosecute politically sensitive cases since 2018.

Due to the lack of transparency on the information related to mining activities in the Arco Minero, the Office was not able to determine to what extent the Government had managed to regularise mining activity and curb illegal mining. According to first-hand accounts received by the Office, a large portion of mining activities remained under the control of organised criminal or armed elements that imposed their own rules through violence and extortion. The report highlighted a pattern of labour exploitation, including child labour, and referred to reports of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Despite the considerable presence of military and security forces inside the Arco Minero area, and efforts to tackle criminal activity, authorities had yet to fully comply with their obligations under international law to prevent, investigate and sanction violations of human rights related to mining operations. The report put forward targeted recommendations to the Government to address the documented human rights challenges. The Office reiterated its offer to continue providing technical assistance to the authorities, and supporting efforts to improve the situation of human rights in Venezuela.

Statement by Concerned Country

Venezuela , speaking as a concerned country via video message, reiterated its rejection of specific reports on sovereign States, as the practice attacked the principles of multilateralism on which the work of the Council, and the entire United Nations, was based. The principles of universality, objectivity and non-selectivity must be applied, to avoid the manipulation and double standards that were at play in the creation of this resolution. As such, Venezuela rejected the report, and its conclusions, as derived from this resolution, noting that it was never asked for its input in compiling the report. Venezuela was a sovereign country with many challenges ahead as a result of unilateral coercive measures put in place against it by the United States, and terrorist activity funded from abroad. In conclusion, Venezuela reiterated its desire to continue to cooperate with the Office of the High Commissioner and the Human Rights Council.

Interactive Dialogue

Speakers reiterated that the crisis in Venezuela could only be addressed through a peaceful and negotiated solution among Venezuelans, which must be based on credible democratic elections ; the recognition and respect of the constitutional role and independence of all democratically elected institutions, notably the National Assembly ; the release of all political prisoners ; and the upholding of human rights. They noted that the multidimensional crisis affecting Venezuelans and their human rights had forced a diaspora of more than five million Venezuelans in just under three years. Other speakers denounced the foreign interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela ; it was underproductive and undermined the dialogue for the promotion and protection of human rights. Some speakers criticized coloured revolutions fomented from abroad that had led to the “duality of power” in Venezuela. They expressed their concern about the effects of unilateral coercive measures, which mainly affected the most vulnerable persons. Speakers rejected the “confrontational” resolution and urged respect for the right of the people of Venezuela to develop their own social model.

Noting the high level of deaths in custody and arbitrary detention, other speakers said illegal mining in and around the Arco Minero was driving extreme human rights abuses. COVID-19 had exacerbated the already dire shortage of basic goods even further, and speakers highlighted the need to provide full humanitarian access to the country. Venezuela had an added responsibility as an elected member of the Human Rights Council, to uphold the human rights of its citizens. Recent decisions of the Supreme Court of Justice and the unilateral appointment of the electoral council were concerning to some speakers, as they showed a lack of judicial independence and further shrinking of the democratic and civil space in the country. The continued intimidation and public defamation of journalists and human rights defenders were worrying, especially in the run-up to the election. The use of torture, arbitrary killing and repression of the democratic opposition, as well as the undermining of the rights of indigenous peoples, were similarly concerning. Many speakers stated that they supported the establishment of a High Commissioner country office in Venezuela, welcoming the increased cooperation of Venezuela with the Office.

 

HRC20/075F