Could Covid-19 lead to permanent prison reform? CTI briefs UN sub-body

Geneva, 10 November 2020 – Today, H.E. Nazhat Shameem Khan, Permanent Representative of Fiji, and H.E. Omar Zniber, Permanent Representative of Morocco to the United Nations in Geneva, on behalf of the six CTI Core States, and Dr Alice Edwards, Head of the CTI Secretariat, briefed the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT).

This year’s annual briefing by the Convention against Torture Initiative (CTI) was held online due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The briefing unsurprisingly concentrated on the impact of the virus and its consequences for prisons, detainees, staff and administrators.

Ambassador Zniber reflected CTI’s view that necessary responses to the Covid-19 pandemic have shown how States can reform their correctional services and sentencing laws and guidelines. The pandemic presents an opportunity and an incentive to rethink how prisons and criminal justice systems are organised and what can be done to improve them. This year has shown how reforms that seemed impossible before the pandemic are possible, such as the early release of non-violent offenders, or improved electronic prison connectivity and communication with the outside world.

The work of the SPT as an international visiting body helping to advise governments and recommend changes has been particularly impacted this year by Covid. Ambassador Zniber remarked: “We regret that this has forced the SPT to cancel several planned in-country visits.” Zniber did, however, congratulated the Subcommittee for holding their 41st session online and welcomed their very useful advice for States and National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) on measures that States can take to mitigate and address the heightened risk of Covid-19 contagion and spread in places where persons are deprived of their liberty.

Ambassador Khan spoke about CTI’s progress to date in preventing torture and reforming justice systems and the ways in which the work of the SPT is relevant and important to CTI. As UNCAT is the gateway to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), issues of prison conditions and reform as well as police custody, and the need for monitoring and oversight, are consistently on the agendas of CTI’s capacity building activities, meetings and events. She said: “So I can say that our work and that of the SPT is mutually reinforcing.”

The meeting concluded with calls for greater cooperation between CTI and the SPT, including the possibility of holding a joint discussion on custodial practices and prison reform catalysed by responses to Covid-19.

About the Convention against Torture Initiative

CTI is an inter-governmental initiative, promoting the universal ratification and implementation of the UN Convention against Torture (UNCAT). The Initiative is being spearheaded by the Governments of Chile, Denmark, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia and Morocco, and is supported by a full-time Secretariat based in Geneva. CTI fosters constructive dialogue and international cooperation between States, and offers technical and capacity building support to governments. We are encouraged by a Group of Friends, which is open to all UN Member States and serves as a platform for the exchange of knowledge, experience and ideas on how to overcome obstacles to ratification and implementation of the UNCAT.

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