The principal international human rights documents clearly protect the human rights of prisoners. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (hereinafter, the Torture Convention) both prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, without exception or derogation. Article 10 of the ICCPR, in addition, mandates that "[a]ll persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person." It also requires that "the reform and social readaptation of prisoners" be an "essential aim" of imprisonment.

Several additional international documents flesh out the human rights of persons deprived of liberty, providing guidance as to how governments may comply with their international legal obligations. The most comprehensive such guidelines are the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as the Standard Minimum Rules), adopted by the U.N. Economic and Social Council in 1957. It should be noted that although the Standard Minimum Rules are not a treaty, they constitute an authoritative guide to binding treaty standards.

Other documents relevant to an evaluation of prison conditions include the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, and, with regard to juvenile prisoners, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (known as the "Beijing Rules"). Like the SMRs, these instruments are binding on governments to the extent that the norms set out in them explicate the broader standards contained in human rights treaties.

These documents clearly reaffirm the tenet that prisoners retain fundamental human rights. As the most recent of these documents, the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners, declares:

Except for those limitations that are demonstrably necessitated by the fact of incarceration, all prisoners shall retain the human rights and fundamental freedoms set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, where the State concerned is a party, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Optional Protocol thereto, as well as such other rights as are set out in other United Nations covenants.

Endorsing this philosophy in 1992, the United Nations Human Rights Committee explained that states have "a positive obligation toward persons who are particularly vulnerable because of their status as persons deprived of liberty" and stated:

[N]ot only may persons deprived of their liberty not be subjected to [torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment], including medical or scientific experimentation, but neither may they be subjected to any hardship or constraint other than that resulting from the deprivation of liberty; respect for the dignity of such persons must be guaranteed under the same conditions as for that of free persons. Persons deprived of their liberty enjoy all the rights set forth in the [ICCPR], subject to the restrictions that are unavoidable in a closed environment.(1)

Significantly, the Human Rights Committee has also stressed that the obligation to treat persons deprived of their liberty with dignity and humanity is a fundamental and universally applicable rule, not dependent on the material resources available to the state party.(2)

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