AuthorDickey, Sarah


During the COVID-19 pandemic, I, like many others, spent a good deal of time watching various Netflix series. One remained impactful: Inside the World's Toughest Prisons takes viewers around the globe, spending time in various prisons. (1) The hosts found prisoners across the world are treated very differently depending upon the country in which they are incarcerated. (2) There is a harsh dichotomy between some nations, such as Germany and Norway, where prisons seem to have adequate resources and focus on rehabilitation; and other nations, such as the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, where there is dramatic overcrowding and a lack of resources to provide enough food for all prisoners. (3)

Globally, approximately eleven million people are incarcerated: they have either been sentenced or are awaiting trial. (4) More than half of this population is incarcerated for non-violent offenses, and half a million people are serving life sentences. (5) Treatment in prison and prospects after prison are very different in each country. In Norway, prison cells look like college dorm rooms, (6) while in Brazil, inmates may not have a bed. (7) And if an individual has been incarcerated once, there is a good chance they will be incarcerated again - this is known as recidivism. (8) Recidivism rates vary drastically: Norway has a recidivism rate of around twenty percent, while the United States has a recidivism rate of over seventy-six percent. (9) Furthermore, responsibility for prison conditions is very different depending upon the state and the state's authority over their own citizens. (10) This note explores how a country's treatment of prisoners is an indicator of its development and should be a component of the Human Development Reports. Prison conditions show the world how a State (11) treats individuals who have committed wrongs within its borders. How a State treats their incarcerated persons indicates the extent of a State's commitment to human rights. Currently, the Human Development Reports consider as a human security indicator only one statistic regarding inmates, which is prison population, expressed per 100,000 people. (12) Measuring human security according to prison population has its uses, but is, however, underinclusive. There needs to be a new, separate metric: prison conditions. The creation of an entirely separate indicator for prison conditions more appropriately accounts for differences in prisoner treatment across the world and encourages all States to treat prisoners fairly.


    The United Nations ("UN") has advocated for human rights since its inception. In 1948, less than five years after the creation of the UN, the UN General Assembly passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ("UDHR"). (13) The UDHR begins with an acknowledgement of basic human dignity and equality that calls for the guarantee of certain rights. (14) It contains thirty articles, the contents of which are viewed as fundamental human rights. (15) The UDHR works in tandem with the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. (16) The UDHR and these two covenants are considered to be "the International Bill of Human Rights." (17)

    In 1993, the UN General Assembly created the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights ("Office of the High Commissioner"), which furthers the UN's goal of pursuing human rights for all people. (18) Since its founding, the Office of the High Commissioner has grown into a large, well-known entity focused on bolstering government commitments to protecting human rights. (19) In 2006, the UN created the Human Rights Council (20) to address human rights violations around the world. (21) One of the primary duties of the UN Human Rights Council is to conduct Universal Periodic Reviews ("UPRs"), which study UN Member States 'human rights commitments and offer insights and support. (22)

    The UDHR is highly influential and has, since its creation, reflected "the ideal human life in any society and the rights to which people are entitled." (23) While difficult to quantify, evidence exists that since the adoption of the UDHR, human rights conditions have improved across the globe. (24) The UDHR has led to the creation of multiple conventions and covenants, (25) which have led to war crimes prosecutions via the International Criminal Court, the near elimination of capital punishment in Europe, (26) and an increase in international cooperation to provide human rights for all. (27) The number of democratic States has expanded, (28) and there has been a global push for equal rights for racial minorities (29) and women. (30)

    While the UDHR and subsequent conventions and treaties represent great progress, human rights violations continue to occur around the world. (31) The UDHR and subsequent conventions have set lofty goals, and many nations fall short. A "sizable portion" of UN member States have dictatorial governments. (32) The Human Rights Council is also limited in actions it can take against violating States. (33)

    The Office of the High Commissioner is continuously underfunded, making it difficult for the organization to accomplish its goals. (34) Furthermore, because all UN members can run for seats on the Human Rights Council (35), States with significant, ongoing human rights problems are often elected. (36) For example, Sudan has a seat on the Human Rights Council until 2022, (37) yet, there have been reports of extreme human rights abuses within the country. (38)

    1. UN Human Development Reports

      Every year, the UN releases a new Human Development Report ("HDR"), which uses several indices to compare nations based upon their level of development. (39) These ranking systems utilize various combinations of the following human development indicators: health, education, income, income inequality, gender inequality, poverty, employment, human security, trade, communication, sustainability, demography, and socio-economic sustainability. (40) These indicators make up the following indices: the Human Development Index ("HDI"), the Inequality-Human Development Index ("LHDI"), the Gender Development Index ("GDI"), the Gender Inequality Index ("Gil"), and the Multidimensional Poverty Index ("MPI"). (41)

      The HDRs are highly influential globally. (42) UN entities cite HDRs to advocate for specific policy positions that ideally push States to become more developed. (43) That being said, the HDR indices, in particular the HDI, have been criticized for their redundancy, (44) their reliance on ambiguous weighting systems, (45) and their production of rankings unfair to poor nations. (46) These flaws create an incomplete picture of human development based upon the HDI's three indicators: a long and healthy life, knowledge, and a decent standard of living. (47) Throughout the years, however, public engagement with the HDRs has waned, and the reports have become more of a UN Human Development Project routine than a genuine call for improvement. (48) In their coverage of the reports, UN media sources have contradicted the HDRs themselves. (49) The HDR measuring methodologies have also been criticized. (50)

    2. UN on Prisons

      UN entities encourage humane treatment for inmates. In 1955, the UN Economic and Social Council passed the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. (51) Following this, the Office of the High Commissioner passed the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners ("Nelson Mandela Rules") in 2015. (52) The Nelson Mandela Rules include nine types of recommendations, addressing the treatment of prisoners: the value of aninmate's inherent dignity, types vulnerable groups of prisoners, medical and health services that should be avilable, prison discipline, and what is appropriate, death and torture investigations to ensure that death and torture are prevented, access to representation by counsel, inspections to ensure standards, terminology, and training of officers to ensure that prisoners are treated with dignity. (53) The Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners expect that all inmates maintain their basic human rights even though their freedom of movement has been revoked. (54)

      The Nelson Mandela Rules constitute the UN's most recent resolution regarding prison conditions. These rules were received as a positive step towards the protection of prisoners 'rights. (55) As the Nelson Mandela Rules have been in place for approximately seven years, questions have arisen regarding their influence and ability to provide prisoners with necessary rights and protections. (56) Many of these problems arise from prison overcrowding across the world. (57)

      The Nelson Mandela Rules call for States to keep detailed records of their prison populations, including institutional occupancy, in order to better identify prison overcrowding. (58) The Rules further call for imprisonment to be used as a mechanism to reduce recidivism, by providing educational and vocational opportunities so inmates can improve their lives upon release. (59) Additionally, these Rules recommend comprehensive training for prison guards, including written and physical tests, and suggest guards continue their training throughout their employment. (60) Overall, these Rules highlight the need to treat inmates as human beings, rather than as animals in a zoo. (61)

    3. Powers of the Human Rights Council

      The Human Rights Council has implemented a complaint procedure by which possible human rights violations can be referred to them. (62) When a complaint is filed, it is screened to determine its validity, and once verified, the complaint is sent to the State where the offense took place. (63) For the Human Rights Council to investigate the allegation, the State where the offense took place must consent. (64) The Human Rights Council embarks on investigatory missions to study and help remedy violations of human rights law. (65)...

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