The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and United Kingdom Law

By David Harris; Sarah Joseph | Go to book overview
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Prisoners' Rights



Those in detention are perhaps most at risk of having their human rights violated. Their powerlessness, and the fact that those who have detained them regard them as a threat (whether because of criminal or political activity), renders detainees vulnerable to the most serious human rights abuses, such as torture or death. However those in detention, especially if they are there as a result of criminal activity, are often seen as the least deserving of rights, and state authorities will often claim that their need for discretion is greatest when dealing with such a dangerous section of the public. This tension, that those in detention may be the most in need yet least deserving of rights, has made explicating the content of the rights of prisoners one of the human rights lawyer's most difficult tasks. Some human rights treaties, such as the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), make no specific reference to those in detention.1 Others, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) or the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), do include a specific Article but, as we shall see when we come to examine Article 10 of the ICCPR, this tends to be a somewhat vague or limited provision. Instead the human rights lawyer must examine the general provisions of a treaty such as the ICCPR and discuss to what extent these provisions apply to those in detention. Clearly full application of rights to liberty, association, privacy, or expression would be inconsistent with any system of imprisonment. Yet bodies such as the Human Rights Committee 2 and the European Court of Human Rights3 have rejected the idea that those in prison can be treated as outlaws, devoid of any rights. Rather, those in detention do retain some rights, with their content being affected by the status of the person in detention (whether he/she be convicted adult criminal, juvenile

With the exception of the negative provision in Art. 4(3)(a) that the prohibition on forced or compulsory labour does not include work done in the ordinary course of detention. A similar provision is found in Art. 8(3)(c)(i) of the ICCPR.
In the Estrella case (74/ 1980) the HRC recognized that prisoners might have rights which were protected by Art. 17 of the Covenant.
See e.g. Golder v. United Kingdom, Series A No 18 ( 1975).


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The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and United Kingdom Law
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