“Mandela Rules”

UN completes update of international norms for the treatment of prisoners UN completes update of international norms for the treatment of prisoners

The UN completed today, in Vienna, its update of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which were created in 1955. The new document increases respect for the dignity of prisoners, guarantees access to health care and the right to a defense and regulates disciplinary punishment such as solitary confinement and reduced food rations. The text has been submitted for adoption at the next session of the General Assembly, which will take place in September in New York.

Click here to read the new minimum rules in full.

The rules, which were completed in South Africa, have been named the “Mandela Rules” to honor the legacy of the country’s late president Nelson Mandela. Human rights organizations that work on prison issues applauded the announcement.

“Now that the multilateral stage is concluded, it is up to the States to guarantee compliance with these new guidelines on the national level,” said Camila Asano, coordinator of Foreign Policy at Conectas. “Brazil has a new chance to adhere to the international standards. State governments such as São Paulo already have legislation incorporating the Minimum Rules, but have not yet mobilized to actually implement them.” According to article 143 of the São Paulo State Constitution, “the state prison legislation assures respect for the minimum rules of the United Nations for the treatment of detainees”.


One of the most important changes is the establishment, for the first time, of a time limit for solitary confinement – the confinement of prisoners without meaningful human contact for 22 hours or more a day. In the minimum rules of 1955, solitary confinement was permitted indefinitely with the approval of a doctor. According to the Mandela Rules, it is an exceptional punishment that may not be applied against anyone for more than 15 days. In Brazil, the limit established by law is 360 days. The practice has been denounced for years by activists and specialist organizations, which consider solitary confinement to be a form of torture, which is often applied indefinitely.

Another significant breakthrough is the guarantee of dignified treatment for pregnant women. According to the new standards, women may not be handcuffed during childbirth or immediately after childbirth. This practice was found to be used frequently in states such as São Paulo, where it has been banned recently.

The Mandela Rules also place more emphasis on the investigation and accountability for torture committed against prisoners. Now, any death or case of torture must be reported immediately to the Judiciary or to another authority that is independent of the prison administration. Similarly, it is worth noting the provision for the independent monitoring and inspection of the prison system, such as the case of Community Councils and national and state mechanisms for the combat and prevention of torture.

The new document also places great emphasis on guaranteeing access to health care and on the procedures for conducting searches, which may not be degrading. Intrusive searches of children is forbidden.

Lost Opportunity

Despite the progress, the new rules do not address other fundamental issues for guaranteeing human rights inside prisons, such as intrusive searches of adults. “The text could have expressly forbidden undressing, squatting and other degrading forms of searches of prisoners and their relatives. The only new rule is the requirement for genital inspections to be conducted by health care professionals. As such, the UN missed a major opportunity,” said Marcos Fuchs, associate director of Conectas.

Long Journey

The process to reform the UN minimum rules began in April 2012. The Intergovernmental Group of Experts met on four occasions: in Vienna, Austria, in 2012 and 2014; in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 2013; and in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2015.

The meetings were attended by delegates and experts from 49 countries and international and national organizations. In 2013, Conectas and the Argentine organization Cels (Center for Legal and Social Studies) submitted a document with contributions for the review.

Brazil played an important role in the preparation of the Mandela Rules and adopted a purposeful and leadership posture throughout the process. The meeting that was scheduled to take place in the country in January 2014, however, was cancelled at the last minute. Just days earlier, revelations surfaced about one of the worst crises in Brazil’s prison system – the dozens of killings at the Pedrinhas prison complex, in the state of Maranhão.

At the time, the cancellation was met with condemnation by organizations that were due to participate in the meeting. In a letter addressed to President Dilma Rousseff and the National Justice Council, Conectas and the Pastoral Carcerária prisoner outreach program asserted that Brazil had lost a unique opportunity to discuss, in the presence of international experts, the problems of its prison policy. As a result of this unexpected decision, the meeting was held in Vienna and paid for by the Brazilian government.

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