On 6 March 2012, Penal Reform International (PRI), the Permanent Mission of Thailand to the UN, the Quaker UN Office (QUNO) and OMCT (World Organisation Against Torture) hosted a side event to promote the UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (the Bangkok Rules), adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2010.
Commonly referred to as “the Bangkok Rules”, these standards were adopted to rectify a gap that until then existed in international standards in the area of criminal justice with respect to the specific needs of girls and women, both with regard to conditions of detention and alternatives to imprisonment.
The event was introduced by H. E. Pisanu Chanvitan, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Thailand to the United Nations, who underscored the importance of the Bangkok Rules in rectifying this gap and emphasised that the Rules supplement rather than replace the existing Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Dr Rani Shankardass, Honorary President of PRI, and Director of Penal Reform and Justice Association, India, talked about actual practice in women’s prisons, commenting on how disastrous women’s experience of the criminal justice system can be, right from the stage of arrest and police custody, due to their lack of knowledge about the process. Dr Shankardass also highlighted good practices which need to be disseminated, such as diversion and alternative dispute resolution, and pointed out that the right to life means a right to living in dignity.
Penal reform expert Tomris Atabay said that the Bangkok Rules are a great step forward in terms of recognising women in the criminal justice system, as well as in terms of being the first international instrument that recognises the rights and needs of the children of those in prison. She explained that a forthcoming practical guidance document, which she is working on with PRI, will be accompanied by an index of compliance to assess the level of implementation of the Bangkok Rules around the world. The creation of this document stemmed from the recognition that the challenge after the adoption of these Rules is to put them into practice; a challenge that will be significant because of a widespread lack of knowledge about the Rules and how to implement them, existing prejudice against women who offend, and the need for resources and political will. Ms Atabay stressed that factors leading to offending behaviour needed to be better understood, and that there is a need for increased knowledge and guidance for all those involved in implementing the Rules, from NGOs to sentencing authorities. Once published, the draft document will be open for comments and feedback from practitioners, official authorities and civil society organisations working in the criminal justice field.
Rachel Brett, of the Quaker UN Office, presented QUNO’s recent publications which look at the children of incarcerated parents and, in another publication at children of those sentenced to death. The Quaker’s UN Office also published a draft web-based framework for decision-making on the children of alleged offenders.
Carin Benninger-Budel of OMCT spoke of the violence and mistreatment suffered by women and girls in detention within the broader context of discrimination in society, describing their stigmatisation when offending behaviour is at odds with society’s expectations of them. She highlighted the importance of a holistic approach to women in the criminal justice system, and stressed their right to be free of violence irrespective of the identity of the perpetrator. Ms Benninger-Budel commended the Committee Against Torture (CAT) for its references to the Bangkok Rules in its concluding recommendations, and mentioned OMCT’s participation in over 40 monitoring visits to children’s places of detention.
About 50 participants attended the event. Questions to the panellists following the presentations indicated a considerable interest in the Bangkok Rules and its provisions, for example on how they reflect reproductive rights. Participants asked what positive steps the judiciary could take to contribute to the implementation of the Rules and how UN mechanisms could take the Rules further. One participant, for example, stressed that already, the dissemination of these standards has helped a great deal and reiterated the importance of women’s representation in institutions such as the police.
If you are interested to read more about PRI’s activities during the March session of the UN Human Rights Council you can find the blog of Andrea Huber, PRI’s Policy Director, about her week of advocacy in Geneva here