Catherine Heard addresses United Nations high level event on incarceration

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04 Oct 2023

I was invited to speak about female imprisonment trends at an event at the UN’s headquarters in Geneva, which took place on 2 October. This was organised by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, to aid implementation of the UN System’s Common Position on Incarceration (2021). Representatives from around 20 states attended as well as a similar number of civil society participants including our friends Harm Reduction International, Penal Reform International and the International Commission of Jurists.

In her opening remarks Nada Al-Nashif, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, rightly noted the worrying return to rising global imprisonment levels, after the significant falls seen in 2020-2022 due to Covid-19 controls and related measures. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights will have its 75th anniversary later this year, Nada called on governments to ‘seize the occasion to accelerate prison reform’.  

Echoing these sentiments, there followed video messages on behalf of United Nations bodies with a special interest in imprisonment; the UN Department of Peace Operations and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Next came presentations from:

  • Camilo Eduardo Umaña Hernández (Deputy Minister for Criminal Policy and Restorative Justice, Colombia), about measures his country has taken to reducing use of pre-trial detention and increasing access to community sanctions and restorative justice. On checking the 2023 data for Colombia on our World Prison Brief, I see numbers of pre-trial detainees have fallen back to almost their 2000 level having risen steadily in the intervening years. Let’s hope this is sustained!
  • Akosua Akuffo, on her personal journey to becoming a penal reform advocate and on the work of the Tithandizane Comfort Home in Zambia, which she co-founded. They train former women prisoners in agricultural entrepreneurship skills.
  • Annette Verster (Technical Lead on Key Populations, Department of Global HIV, Viral Hepatitis and STI Programmes, Word Health Organization), on health as a human right in prison settings. Annette presented data on serious contagious disease prevalence in prisons worldwide, stressing the need to tackle structural discrimination against men who have sex with men, people with HIV and AIDS and other groups.
  • Edwin Cameron (Birkbeck Visiting Professor, Retired Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, and currently Inspecting Judge, Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services), highlighting the potential of the 8 March Principles for a Human Rights-Based Approach to Criminal Law Proscribing Conduct Associated with Sex, Reproduction, Drug Use, HIV, Homelessness and Poverty to mitigate the detrimental human rights impact of misapplied criminal laws. (This is an initiative I’ve also recently commented on.)

My presentation was on the causes and consequences of rising female imprisonment rates, with data from the World Female Incarceration List (5th edition) and insights from some of our and our partners’ research on this issue.

It will be interesting to see which countries really get to grips with the challenges set by the Common Position, an initiative on which I had the privilege of addressing a Committee of the UN Secretary General in 2019, at a very early stage of its development.