Earlier this month the 14th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice was held in Kyoto, Japan and online in a ‘hybrid’ format. The UN ‘Crime Congress’ has been held every five years since 1955 and represents the ‘world’s largest and most diverse gathering of policy-makers, practitioners, academia, intergovernmental organizations and civil society in the field of crime prevention and criminal justice.’
In this blog, Olivia Rope, Executive Director for Penal Reform International and Vice-Chair of the Alliance of NGOs on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice gives her top five takeaways from the Kyoto Declaration which was adopted as the outcome of the Congress.
Earlier this month many of us working in the field of criminal justice met online as part of the UN Crime Congress, some bleary-eyed in various time zones tuning into sessions and debates or ancillary events online, with a limited number of delegates in the huge conference centre in Kyoto. A significant part of the Congress, however, was ‘done and dusted’ by the time it all kicked off – the political declaration. This document sets out the crime prevention and criminal justice agenda for the next five years and is therefore of key relevance to PRI’s mission.
The Kyoto Declaration is a packed document covering a whole load of issues from access to justice through to wildlife crime. Our assessment of the Declaration and the processes around its adoption is mixed as I lay out in these five key takeaways.
The role of civil society was undisputedly diminished formally and informally.
For the second time, the outcome document of the Congress (in this case the Kyoto Declaration) was agreed in advance and adopted on the first day of proceedings. Like with the previous Congress which resulted in the Doha Declaration, this key document which outlines agreed priorities had been agreed in Vienna (where the UN’s operations on crime are based) behind closed doors and notably largely without civil society’s contribution.
Language matters and in this case, the Kyoto Declaration diminishes civil society’s role to one of a ‘partnership’ with states only, and most worryingly with the caveat ‘as appropriate.’ Analysis by Ian Tennant of the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime helpfully shows that the role of civil society in recent Congresses has diminished over time – a shrinking of civil society space so to speak at the UN level.
Evidence of the significant contribution of civil society in this area – an essential actor in crime prevention and building fair and effective criminal justice systems – was seen through the number of rich ancillary events on wide-ranging issues that civil society convened. Outside of these ancillary meetings, however, at this Congress, the limited speaking slots available to NGOs was particularly poor and concerning.
The global pandemic meant that the Congress brought most participants together online challenging and bringing (some) creativity to international diplomacy.
Like the Olympic Games, the Japanese hosts had to postpone the Crime Congress which was due to take place in April 2020 because of the global pandemic. The ongoing consequences of COVID-19 meant that the vast majority of the 5,600 registered participants from around the globe joined online. Japan is rightly proud, together with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, that technically it was possible for this to ahead and all of the usual formalities and discussions went ahead without any major glitches.
The usual benefits of attending such forums however, such as forging partnerships, having dialogues and making new relationships were missed. These typically take place in the corridors, over coffee or perhaps a Japanese brew, outside of the formal sessions. An unprecedented yet common challenge reported on across the international diplomacy world currently…
The Congress came at a watershed moment but did it take up the challenge in addressing the critical issues?
The Congress convened at a time where many countries continue or have needed to impose new restrictions on societies due to high rates of COVID-19 in communities and stretched healthcare systems. It was therefore natural that many interventions reflected on the impacts of COVID-19 on national, regional and international efforts to prevent crime and improve criminal justice systems.
The Kyoto Declaration also ‘expressed grave concern about the vulnerability of prisons’ in relation to COVID-19, rightly linking this risk to ‘long-standing challenges such as prison overcrowding and poor prison conditions.’ An obvious answer to these challenges lies in the UN Tokyo Rules, aptly adopted in Tokyo 30 years prior, which encourage and give guidance on the use of alternatives to imprisonment.
The Declaration, however, did not give urgency to the implementation of these key standards only calling for governments to ‘take measures to address overcrowding … including by considering the use of alternatives to pretrial detention and custodial sentences’. This was a lost opportunity to guide governments in some basic measures in reducing overcrowding such as using pre-trial detention as a last resort, reducing sentence lengths, decriminalising petty offences and moving away from solely punitive responses to drugs.
Missing pieces to the puzzle
There are some significant omissions in the 97 paragraphs making up the Kyoto Declaration – significantly a number of critical trends in criminal justice systems. One of these is life imprisonment which is on the rise and brings with it a host of hugely problematic issues for prisons and criminal justice systems. As the UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, said at our ancillary event on the topic, ‘the costs and consequences [of life imprisonment] for human dignity and human rights are immense.’ Ms Ilze Brands Kehris added that ‘we must join forces to change penal policies and practices to counter the upward trend in the use of life imprisonment.’
A notable inclusion related to excessive sentencing, however, is that proportionality in sentencing is promoted. This principle is a powerful tool to resist the overuse of imprisonment.
There is an echoing silence on the abolition of the death penalty in the Declaration. This is regrettable, particularly given the global movement towards its abolition and the fact that the UN and regional inter-governmental bodies, as well as many countries from all regions, have long-recognised the human rights violations inherently associated with its use. Moreover, the ineffectiveness of it as a sanction in deterring or bringing about any form of justice is now well evidenced.
Drug policies only receive a light mention in the Declaration which is surprising given that punitive approaches remain one of the key drivers of rising prison populations, particularly for women. The lack of attention also underlines the disjointed approach to drugs and criminal justice seen at the international level.
Significantly, human rights only get a brief mention in the Kyoto Declaration with two general mentions and two references to human rights in relation to migrants. Without a human rights-based approach to crime prevention and criminal justice, harm is done and systems are less effective. That is why human rights standards are interwoven through instruments that guide, for instance, the treatment of prisoners in the UN Nelson Mandela Rules and are increasingly recognised as central to a more balanced approach to drug policies.
Undoubtedly these shortcomings are a product of negotiating a consensus-based Declaration. Nonetheless they constitute a lost opportunity to have a comprehensive commitment and plan to take on such critical issues common to criminal justice systems across the globe.
A spotlight was put on the need for a rehabilitative approach in criminal justice policies.
To end on a positive note, a welcomed focus in the Kyoto Declaration and at the Congress was the reiteration – or even a consensus – that a rehabilitative approach reduces reoffending.
Several components are covered in the Declaration including the development of individualised programmes for people in prison, providing for social reintegration in the community with ‘active involvement’ of local communities and the ‘importance of raising awareness of the importance of the public acceptance of offenders’. These commitments need to be followed through alongside a decrease in the use of imprisonment, now more than ever, as we see the harmful impacts of COVID-19 restrictions on rehabilitation, among other things.
Photo credit United Nations Information Service (UNIS), Vienna.