Upon return from Geneva, on Friday evening, my head was spinning from all the various issues I had discussed with so many different people from so many different institutions and the week felt much longer than five days, but at the same time the term had passed as with a snap of the fingers.
It was a dense programme of events, advocacy and meetings with delegates. I had spent the week at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, representing PRI at three main undertakings, and packed a whole range of other meetings around those.
Firstly, PRI was co-organiser, with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), of a side event on solitary confinement and its human rights implications, and speaker on a panel of experts including the Special Rapporteur on Torture. With this activity, PRI tried to contribute to countering the worrying trend of incarcerating prisoners in conditions of isolation. Studies leave no doubt about how this practice is worsening or even causing severe mental health problems of prisoners – more often than not unjustified and unnecessary. Depending on the circumstances the practice can amount to ill-treatment or torture. But even where this threshold may not (yet) be met, what about other human rights that such treatment infringes on? To name one: the right to health, explicitly including not only physical but also mental health. Imagine you are in a cell on your own the whole day, every day, with no interaction with other human beings. You cannot talk to another living soul for at least 23 hours a day; and sometimes “solitary” means you do the one-hour walk in the prison courtyard by yourself as well. The impact of such treatment does not go away with the end of solitary confinement, and persists longer than the prison sentence.
Well, you might say, that’s necessary for security reasons. Certainly this only affects the worst of the worst criminals, right? But does it really? For example, the Bureau of Justice in the US reports itself that on any given day 80,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement. Are all these 80,000 really such a “security risk” in a prison that isolation to such an extent is justified? Doesn’t this rather illustrate how routine this practice has become? That prisoners are locked away in single cells simply because it seems easier to “manage”? – In the light of this worrying practice, not shying away from children and juveniles, PRI and ACLU scheduled this side event at the Human Rights Council to reiterate the call by the Special Rapporteur on Torture to prohibit prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement, and in particular solitary confinement of minors.
On the same day, also on 6 March, PRI co-hosted a side event to promote the “UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders”, together with the Permanent Mission of Thailand, the Quaker’s UN Office and OMCT. Commonly referred to as “the Bangkok Rules”, these are standards adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2010 to rectify a gap that until then existed in international standards in the area of criminal justice. Until then, standards had not properly reflected the specific needs of girls and women, both with regard to conditions of detention and alternatives to imprisonment. The Ambassador of Thailand, Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, had found the time to come to the event and deliver an introductory statement. PRI had invited Dr. Rani Shankardass to illustrate, from her large experience of work in South Asia, in what ways women and girls are discriminated in the criminal justice system. And Tomris Atabay, penal reform expert, described the Guidance Document she is currently drafting, commissioned by PRI, to facilitate implementation of the Bangkok Rules. This document will try to explain the rationale behind the provisions, which actions need to be taken on a legislative and practical level, which actors need to get active and what good practices exist that can be used as a model.
Admittedly, events like this do not sound all that exciting, do they? A lot of talking you might wave aside. But then, the addressees have to know about a problem and the corresponding standards first before one can hope for their implementation, right? In the case of the rather new Bangkok Rules, it seems that these standards, having been negotiated under the patronage of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna, are not (yet) very well known amongst the Geneva-based institutions and UN human rights mechanisms and institutions. The side event was therefore one piece in a whole patchwork of PRI activities to increase awareness about the Rules and support their implementation.
Unfortunately, with the two side events right after each other, I had missed the Thai lunch boxes that the Permanent Representation had kindly sponsored so that delegates and participates could join the side event without having to give up on their right to food. But I had it on good authority that they were enjoyed by all and felt I was compensated by a successful event – and the prospect of a cheese fondue in the evening…
Another important session, which PRI and other NGOs had long awaited, was the day of discussion on juvenile justice at the Human Rights Council. Truth be told, the large number of delegations at the Council and the long list of issues that had to be packed into this one day made it more a “day of statements” than a day of discussion. But the significance of all these delegates dedicating a whole day to an issue must not be underestimated. After all, every issue was elucidated by a couple of experts who had been invited for this purpose; and preparing for this session the delegations had to concern themselves with the human rights of children in conflict and in contact with the law long before the actual day of discussion. But also, many delegations raised reform plans with regard to juvenile justice in their statements, allowing for civil society to follow up and hold them to their promises.
In between these main events, I had the opportunity to meet state delegations and advocate for a penal reform agenda. For example, a long and fruitful meeting with the delegation coming in from Bangkok in Thailand resulted in the agreement to cooperate further on the implementation of the Bangkok Rules. At the same time, we discussed the forthcoming session of the Crime Commission in Vienna in April, and the agenda item of the “Review of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners”. This process, very high on PRI’s agenda as a window of opportunity to bring international standards drafted in 1957 “up to speed”, was also the subject matter of my meetings with a couple of other delegations.
A side event I attended on prevention of torture in Tunisia was impressive already in that the Ambassador shared a panel with a critical civil society activist and was pleasantly firm in the new government’s commitment to turn the page of the past and address shortcomings highlighted by the Special Rapporteur on Torture, who had been invited to visit the country recently.
While the satisfaction of these promises has yet to come, this example illustrates once more how much human rights work is about perseverance. A lot of the “buzzing” and meetings at the United Nations in Geneva takes place in the “Serpentine Café”. I’m reading that the eponym for this café is a formation of rocks formed by metamorphic transformation. In other words rocks, which seemed unalterable, finally gave in. Seems like a very adequate place to be advocating for human rights.