Human rights activist warns against violation of prisoners

Mrs Chirwa was speaking at the University of Pretoria’s graduation ceremony this afternoon (Wednesday 12 December 2008). Thirty-two law students from 20 countries who have just completed a Master of Laws (LLM) in Human Rights and Democratisation in Africa received their degrees at the graduation ceremony. A number of prizes were also awarded to deserving students.

The theme of Chirwa’s keynote address was “Human Rights in African Prisons”. The 10th December is the International Human Rights Day. On this day, sixty years ago, the United Nations adopted the Declaration of Human Rights.

According to Chirwa, since prisoners and detainees are human beings, their rights were protected by the provisions such as the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights as well as others in national and international instruments.

Chirwa said that the general protection of human rights of prisoners was, however, not enough. She cited poor conditions in prisons in African countries.

“In almost all the countries that I visited as Special Rapportuer on Prisons and Detention Centres in Africa conditions were similar, with overcrowding being the main problem and root cause of most of the other problems. Overcrowding is a recipe for violence and poses a serious challenge to rehabilitation programmes. Overcrowding is by itself a human rights violation and occasions further human rights violations. A high prison population is also a drain on scarce national resources,” said Chirwa.

According to Chirwa governments must construct more, modern prisons and police cells, extend existing ones and at the same time equip them with proper facilities to improve not only the prisoners’ welfare, but also conditions in which they can meet visitors and consult with lawyers and doctors. This would assist in overcoming overcrowding.

She also cited public opinion prevailing in many countries which also negatively affects and influences governments in the allocation of budgetary support to prisons departments.

“It is generally believed that prisoners are law-breakers who have inflicted misery on law-abiding people and do not deserve to benefit from tax-payers’ money. Be as it may, as human beings, prisoners are entitled to enjoy human rights and, as the Vienna Convention of 1993 provides, the protection of human rights is the first responsibility of government,” Chirwa said.

She reiterated the importance of upholding Article 5 of the African Charter and not torturing prisoners or subjecting them to any form of cruel or degrading treatment.

“The right of every prisoner not to be subjected to torture and ill-treatment is part of the positive right to have his or her dignity respected. This is the responsibility of African governments and it obliges them to improve the current conditions in prisons,” she added.

The University of Pretoria’s Centre for Human Rights (located within the Faculty of Law), which was awarded the 2006 UNESCO Prize for Human Rights Education, presents the one-year full-time LLM in partnership with eight other universities in Africa representing all the sub-regions. The students were drawn from a variety of backgrounds, including the civil service, the judiciary, academia, and some recent graduates.

Since its inception in 2000, 227 students from 30 African countries have graduated from the programme, and gone on to hold various positions in government, academia, and the NGO sector. Thirty-four students from 19 countries have already been selected to participate in the programme next year.

The students who graduated this week will return to their respective countries where they will use their expertise to further an awareness of human rights and influence general human rights polity in international and national NGOs, government and academia. Some will work in international organisations and some may work at the newly established African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

Click here for the Mrs Chirwa's full adress.

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