New UN Standards on Prisoners Will Strengthen Pretrial Justice

This week, criminal justice experts from around the world will gather in Doha, Qatar at the 13th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. Across hundreds of sessions and side panels, the thousands of attendees will discuss myriad issues—but few are as pressing as reviewing the proposed new United Nations Standard Minimum Rules (SMRs) for the Treatment of Prisoners.

The original idea behind creating the SMRs was to provide UN member states with clear guidance on what their domestic laws should include regarding the treatment of prisoners. That is why the first (and currently only) set of SMRs was created back in 1955: to establish the bare minimum of what prisoners should be entitled to while serving sentences, or even while being under arrest and/or in remand detention.

In the 60 years since the SMRs were written, a number of key international legal instruments have been adopted and various criminal justice reforms have taken places across the globe—yet the SMRs have not been updated. Should prisoners be allowed to use Skype or email? Not surprisingly, the SMRs—written two years before Sputnik was launched—are silent on this question.

Fortunately, there is an emerging consensus among UN member states and civil society that it is time to bring the SMRs up to date, and to ensure that the minimum standards include key international standards that have been developed since 1955, such the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid (2012), to name just one.

When it comes to pretrial justice in particular, the latest draft-proposal for new SMRs includes a significant expansion of rights for pretrial detainees. For example, the proposed new SMRs call for ensuring the right to prompt information on charges; the right of access to legal aid providers, free of charge if one cannot afford it; the right to access case file materials, communicate in confidentiality with the legal aid service provider, and have adequate time to prepare a defence; and the right of access to independent and competent interpreters. If we consider that these should be the minimum rules that states should include in their domestic legislation, current pretrial detention practices should improve immensely if and when the new SMRs are implemented.

There are still a few steps to be completed before the UN General Assembly considers endorsing them. The first one occurs in Doha this week, when attendees will receive a report on the current status of the proposed new SMRs. The next, crucial, step is at the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) in Vienna in May, where the great hope is that member-states will adopt the reviewed draft “as currently proposed” and recommend it for the endorsement by the UN General Assembly in New York later in the year.

Fortunately, the member-states seem to be quite supportive already of the review process itself and the proposed updating of the SMRs. Nevertheless, it is still essential that UN experts, civil society groups, and governments continue to press for adoption and implementation of the new SMRs. Until that happens, the rules governing criminal justice systems will literally be stuck in the 1950s.


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