Ladies and gentlemen,
Allow me first to begin by offering my condolences to the Government and people of South Africa over the passing of Ambassador Zindzi Mandela.
I offer my thanks to the Co-Chairs of the Group of Friends of the Nelson Mandela Rules for inviting me to this timely event, taking place as we mark Nelson Mandela International Day and celebrate one of humanity’s greatest champions for justice.
UNODC is proud to be the custodian of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and we continue to be inspired by Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy in our efforts for the humane treatment of prisoners and their reintegration into our societies.
I would also like to take this occasion to salute the work of prison staff, who perform a difficult and important public service, and who are now working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response.
The COVID-19 crisis has brought home the hard truth that poor prison conditions, overcrowding and lack of resources pose serious threats not only to the safety and health of 11 million people in prisons worldwide, but also to communities outside.
UNODC and our UN system partners, including WHO, OHCHR and UNAIDS, have issued wake-up calls and guidance on addressing the risks of an explosive outbreak of the virus in prisons.
UNODC has also responded quickly to Member States’ requests for support on the ground. Currently, our Office is helping to prevent and mitigate COVID risks in prisons in more than 50 countries, by providing training, protective equipment and health care assistance.
Some countries are seeking to contain the spread of the virus by releasing significant numbers of prisoners. Preliminary information indicates that close to 600,000 prisoners have been authorized for release in more than 100 countries.
Release measures have typically focussed on prisoners who are vulnerable to the virus, who are approaching the end of their sentences, or whose release would not pose a risk to public safety.
Nevertheless, the majority of Member States continue to deal with acute issues of overcrowding, with more than 50 countries operating prisons at more than 150% of actual capacity.
Operating over official capacity negatively impacts health and safety, quality of nutrition, sanitation and hygiene, and care for vulnerable groups.
Prison overcrowding also greatly increases the risk of COVID-19 in prisons, and the resulting pressures fuel conflict and violence, undermining efforts to ensure a safe and secure environment.
The virus has caused anxiety and fear among both prisoners and prison officers. As we have already seen during the pandemic, protests, riots and other incidents in prisons have erupted in over 40 countries.
This meeting of the Group of Friends thus comes at a critical moment, and highlights the importance of addressing prison conditions in line with the Nelson Mandela Rules, even as Member States take necessary measures to prevent or respond to the spread of COVID-19 in prisons.
At the same time, it is an opportunity to encourage and support all governments to tackle systemic challenges of prison management for the long term and comprehensively address how imprisonment is used.
This year we mark the 5th anniversary of the Nelson Mandela Rules, as well as the 10th anniversary of the Bangkok Rules on women offenders and prisoners.
Implementation of these international standards and norms, along with the Tokyo Rules for non-custodial measures, will save resources, protect human rights and reduce re-offending upon release.
The international community can do more to advance their use in all countries, in particular through increased assistance to developing countries, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.
I am grateful to the Group of Friends for your commitment, and for your continuing support for UNODC’s work to promote the practical application of the Rules, through our Global Programme on Addressing Prison Challenges, and through our portfolio of field-based prison reform projects in all regions. I intend to work with my colleagues to expand our activities in this area.
I would particularly like to thank the Co-Chairs, Germany and South Africa, for the funding provided for the scenario-based e-learning course on the Nelson Mandela Rules that UNODC developed for prison officers.
The course has already been used by thousands of learners from more than 90 countries, and it received the 2019 Excellence Award from the International Corrections and Prisons Association.
UNODC has also developed more than 20 handbooks, training curricula and other tools, which form the backbone of our support.
In 2019 and the first months of 2020, our Office provided technical assistance and advisory services on prison reform in line with Nelson Mandela Rules to more than 40 Member States in all regions.
Looking ahead, UNODC is exploring how we can further reinforce our support for enhancing the use of non-custodial measures, including by strengthening the capacity of those criminal justice entities in charge of implementation, such as probation services.
We are also seeking to support Member States to improve case management by reducing backlogs and hearing delays in criminal proceedings.
These crucial steps can help to relieve prisons and corrections services from over-reliance on incarceration and from the pressures caused by overcrowding.
Prison and penal reform will also be a priority of our regional initiatives, including UNODC’s Strategic Vision for Africa 2020 to 2030.
We count on the support of the Group of Friends and all Member States for this work, which we will pursue in partnership with you, with UN and regional organizations, and civil society.
As we mark Nelson Mandela Day 2020, I urge Member States to take this opportunity to commit to recovering better and contributing to achieving the SDGs by improving prison management capacities in line with the Nelson Mandela Rules.
Let us pledge to live up to Mandela’s great legacy, and leave no one behind.