Vienna, 22 May 2023 – The United Nations Minimum Standards for the Treatment of Prisoners – also known as the Nelson Mandela Rules – are the universally recognized blueprint for good prison management in the 21st century. They offer a powerful benchmark of minimum conditions and safeguards, thus offering the foundation for better prison management. The Vienna-based Group of Friends of the Nelson Mandela Rules is made up of 39 Member States and other entities, who commit to promoting the practical application of the Rules worldwide.
In the margins of the first day of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Vienna, Austria, the Group of Friends convened a high-level event entitled ‘A forgotten population: The treatment of prisoners in challenging times’. Watch a recording of the meeting.
The meeting, which was attended by more than 140 participants, marked a significant moment: the Group not only benefited from keynote interventions delivered by two Ministers of Justice, but also welcomed H.E. Vilawan Mangklatanakul, Permanent Representative of Thailand to the United Nations, as a new Co-Chair. The composition of the Group further grew with the admission of the Philippines as a new member and the Inter-Parliamentary Union joining in an observer capacity.
While opening the meeting, H.E. Götz Schmidt-Bremme, Permanent Representative of Germany to the United Nations and Co-Chair of the Group of Friends reminded the Group of its purpose: “We are here to promote the application of the Nelson Mandela Rules, to discuss priority challenges in prison management, and to support the important technical assistance delivered by UNODC in this field.”
The Group was meeting in person for only the second time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. H.E. Ronald Lamola, Minister of Justice and Correctional Services ofSouth Africa, underlined the significance of the pandemic, which he said “reinforced the importance of prisoners’ rights to health and human dignity and, most importantly, the need for them not to be forgotten.”
Speaking as a representative of the home country of Nelson Mandela, after which the Rules are named, Minister Lamola encouraged Member States to remember that prisoners are not separate from wider society but are a continued part of it, and that their treatment affects us all. He pointed to UNODC’s e-learning course on the Nelson Mandela Rules as a vital tool which offers free, certified training in multiple languages to anyone working in prisons.
At the meeting, the Group welcomed its new Co-Chair, H.E. Vilawan Mangklatanakul, Permanent Representative of Thailand to the United Nations. As Ambassador Schmidt-Bremme pointed out, this move expands not only the geographical and gender composition in the Group’s Bureau, but also gives stronger prominence to the need for gender-responsive offender management as called for by the Bangkok Rules.
Speaking for the first time in her new function as third Co-Chair, Ambassador Mangklatanakul emphasized Thailand’s commitment to both the Nelson Mandela Rules and the Bangkok Rules, the latter constituting an important addition to acknowledge the gender-specific needs of women offenders: “Thailand continues to advocate for gender-responsive criminal justice systems, and is currently operating 29 model prisons under the Bangkok Rules, which emphasize the improvement of facilities and programmes to support the reintegration of female prisoners into society.”
She closed her speech with a call to action for all Member States: “We are halfway through the target years of the 2030 agenda. Let’s pool available resources and exchange best practices to create a lasting and positive impact on the lives of people in correctional facilities around the world, so that they will no longer be considered a forgotten population.”
Following Ghana, Kazakhstan and Uganda in 2022, the Philippines has become the latest Member State to join the Group of Friends. The meeting was privileged to hear from H.E. Jesus Crispin C. Remulla,Secretary of Justice of the Philippines, who outlined the country’s work towards the realization of the Nelson Mandela Rules. “We are determined to ensure that except for their liberty, persons deprived of liberty will continue to enjoy all their fundamental human rights while in detention in the Philippines. We have embarked on a whole-of-government, whole of nation approach in order to improve our correctional system.”
Read more about Minister Remulla’s speech and the Philippines’ work to improve its correctional system with the support of UNODC.
The meeting of the Group of Friends also offered an opportunity for Member States to consider the current situation in prisons worldwide. Mr. Philipp Meissner, Inter-regional Advisor in UNODC’s Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Section, provided a brief overview of current challenges in prison and offender management. In addition to longstanding issues such as severe overcrowding and poor conditions, emerging challenges such as decreasing budget allocations, climate disruptions as well a food and energy shortages threaten an increasing number of prison systems worldwide.
Yet, Mr. Meissner underlined, there are reasons for hope. UNODC was able to assist 43 countries in prison and penal reform efforts worldwide last year alone, ranging from policy, legislative and material support to tailored training for 3,000 prison, probation and criminal justice officials. More than 111,000 users have now enrolled in the e-learning course on the Nelson Mandela Rules. “Today’s meeting of the Group of Friends firmly positions prison and offender management as an integral part of this year’s thematic debate of the Commission on access to justice and on ensuring safe and secure societies,” Mr. Meissner said. “In UNODC, we count on your support to overcome increasing difficulties in raising the resources required to maintain our work on prison and penal reform.”
The relevance and urgency of action on prison and penal reform was underscored by motions from the floor from Uganda, the State of Palestine, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and Ukraine. The Group was pleased about the announcement of the Inter-Parliamentary to join its work in observer capacity.
Ms. Viktoria Kuvshynnykova,Deputy Permanent Representative of the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations, invited Member States to support Ukraine’s prisons by attending an upcoming International Penitentiary Forum in Kyiv: “The State Penitentiary Service is facing unprecedented challenges due to the ongoing war. The Ministry of Justice of Ukraine, jointly with UNODC, has developed a project proposal to address these challenges and I invite all Member States to consider supporting this important initiative.”
The meeting was closed by H.E. Mr. Rapulane Molekane, Permanent Representative of South Africa to the United Nations and Co-Chair of the Group of Friends, who thanked members for their unwavering support. In the current time of growing challenges for prison systems around the world, the guiding principles of the Nelson Mandela Rules are only more relevant as we seek to build safer, more humane societies that leave no one behind.