Today marks the day Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born. Since 2010, the United Nations celebrates Nelson Mandela International Day to recognise the former South African President’s outstanding contribution to a culture of peace and freedom. For the first time this year, the United Nations also uses today’s occasion to draw attention to the more than 10 million prisoners worldwide as well as to the work of those entrusted with their safe, secure and humane custody.
With the memory of Nelson Mandela in mind, who himself had to spend 27 years of his life in prison, the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners in December 2015 as “the Nelson Mandela Rules”. The rules resulted from five years of inter-governmental consultations, and represent a landmark harmonization of the original version (1957) with international law and good prison management practices.
In addition, UNODC and its partners are echoing the General Assembly’s call to also celebrate Nelson Mandela International Day with a view to promote humane conditions of imprisonment, to raise awareness about prisoners being a continuous part of society and to value the important work of prison staff. A lot of work remains to be done – overcrowding, inadequate prison conditions, violence, recidivism, as well as emerging threats, such as the risk of violent extremism, pose tremendous challenges to numerous prison administrations. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon equally used today’s occasion to remind the international community that “prisoners deserve humane treatment and full respect for their dignity as human beings.”
Through its Field Offices, and in close coordination with their national counterparts, UNODC colleagues around the world are therefore engaged in various outreach activities to mark this International Day. Be it in Bolivia, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mauritius, Nigeria, Senegal, Somalia, Panama or the United Arab Emirates – 18 July this year goes along with a vibrant plea to treat prisoners in line with their inherent dignity as human beings.
“I call on every country to join UNODC in ensuring that the Nelson Mandela Rules make a difference to the lives of prisoners globally”, stressed UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov, adding that UNODC stands ready to assist. As the custodian of the Nelson Mandela Rules, UNODC has indeed been proactive in turning them into action by launching a new Global Programme on Addressing Prison Challenges. Building on its long-standing experience and expertise in in the field of prison reform, this comprehensive Programme is focussing on providing technical assistance and advisory services to (i) reduce the scope of imprisonment; (ii) improve prison conditions and strengthening prison management; and (iii) support the social reintegration of prisoners upon release.
South Africa, homeland of Nelson Mandela and host of the final meeting of the Expert Group on the revision of the Standard Minimum Rules in Cape Town, is partnering closely with UNODC in promoting the practical application of the Nelson Mandela Rules. In this vein, the Permanent Mission of South Africa to the United Nations (Vienna), together with UNODC, plans to establish a “Group of Friends of the Nelson Mandela Rules”. An informal and open-ended group of like-minded Member States such as this can greatly help to keep the momentum created by the adoption of the Nelson Mandela Rules, and to facilitate consultations on prison reform, including in the course of future sessions of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.