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U.N. Considers Revisions to Standard Minimum Rules for Treatment of Prisoners

The U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice held its 22nd session in late April 2013. A significant item on the Commission’s agenda was the development of revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs). Originally adopted in 1955, SMRs are rules that regulate the bare minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners in all countries. They are so significant that the U.S. State Department has called them “the most important set of guidelines” governing how prisoners and detainees are treated.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), in this case the ACLU, Amnesty International and Penal Reform International, have continuously advocated updating the SMRs to ensure they conform with contemporary international human rights standards. According to the ACLU, the NGOs are “advocating for progressive amendments aimed at strengthening this historic document by bringing it in line with international law and norms regarding the rights of people deprived of their liberty.”

In December 2012, the ACLU attended the U.N. Inter-Governmental Expert Group Meeting (IGEM) in Buenos Aires. While at the meeting, the ACLU pushed for more stringent protections against long-term solitary confinement, reductions in prison violence, the ability of prisoners to be represented by retained counsel at disciplinary hearings and the prohibition of “discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.”

While some concessions were made and progress looked promising, the U.S. government delegation reportedly hindered progress by insisting that all agreements made during the IGEM meeting not be deemed agreements, but simply topics discussed. The U.S. delegation also moved to exclude NGOs from participating in future discussions, recommending that only government delegations be present at future meetings.

The ACLU said the need to update the existing SMRs is important, but how to update them is the question. While NGOs continue to push for several key reforms – modifying solitary confinement policies and procedures being chief among them – the U.S. delegation continues to frustrate their efforts, leaving the impression that while the U.S. condemns human rights abuses in other countries, it refuses to look at abuses in its own prison system.


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