Principles of detention monitoring

Monitoring places of detention is a delicate and sensitive task. For visits to have the intended preventive effect it is important that those conducting visits respect certain basic principles and ethical standards.

The following principles are based on the United Nations Training Manual on Human Rights Monitoring  and have been adapted to the specificities of monitoring places of detention. Institutions in charge of detention monitoring need to develop recruitment strategies, working practices and training that ensure the respect of these core principles.

1. Do no harm

Detainees are particularly vulnerable and their safety should always be kept in mind by visitors. Visitors should not take any action or measure which could endanger an individual or a group. In particular, in cases of allegations of torture or ill-treatment, the principle of confidentiality, security and sensitivity should be kept in mind. Poorly planned or prepared visits, or visits not conducted in respect of the methodology or of the following basic principles, can actually do more harm than good.

2. Exercise good judgment

Monitors should be aware of the standards and rules against which they are conducting their monitoring. However, whatever their number, relevance and precision, rules cannot substitute for good personal judgment and common sense. Monitors should therefore possess and exercise good judgment in all circumstances.

3. Respect the authorities and the staff in charge

Unless a minimum of mutual respect is established between the staff and the visiting team, the work in the places of detention might be jeopardised. Visitors should always respect the functioning of the authorities and try to identify the hierarchic levels and their responsibilities to address any problem at the right level. While one can find individual staff with inappropriate behaviour, many problems stem from an inadequate system for deprivation of liberty which fosters inappropriate behaviour. Visitors should also take into account the fact that staff working in places of detention are carrying out a demanding job, often socially undervalued and, in many countries, poorly paid.

4. Respect the persons deprived of liberty

Whatever the reasons for deprivation of liberty, detainees must be treated with respect and courtesy. The visitor should introduce him or herself.

5. Be credible

Visitors should explain clearly, to detainees and staff, the objectives and the limitations of their monitoring work and behave accordingly. They should make no promise that they are unlikely or unable to keep and not take any action that they cannot follow through.

6. Respect confidentiality

Respect for the confidentiality of the information provided in private interviews is essential. Visitors should not make any representation using the name of a detainee without his or her express and informed consent. Visitors should make sure that the detainee fully understands the benefits as well as the possible risks or negative consequences of any action taken on their behalf. Visitors, medical doctors and interpreters are all bound to respect confidentiality.


7. Respect security

Security refers to the personal security of visitors, the security of the detainees who are in contact with them and the security of the place of detention.

It is important to respect the internal rules of the places visited and to seek advice or request any special dispensation from those in charge. Authorities often invoke security reasons for not allowing visits to specific places or put conditions on interviews with specific detainees. It is ultimately the responsibility of the visiting delegation to decide if and how they want to follow this advice.

Visitors should refrain from introducing or removing any object without the prior agreement of the authorities. They should display their identity by wearing a badge or other means of identification. Regarding the security of the detainees visited, the visitor should consider how to use information in such a way as not to put individuals at risk. Visitors should make repeat visits and meet again most of the detainees seen previously to make sure they have not suffered reprisals.


8. Be consistent, persistent and patient

The legitimacy of the visiting mechanism is established over time, as a result of the relevance, persistence and consistency of its work. Monitoring places of detention requires efficiency, regularity and continuity. It implies visiting regularly the same places, and building up enough evidence to draw well founded conclusions and make recommendations. It is essential to be persistent also in the follow-up activities.


9. Be accurate and precise

During the on-site visit it is important to collect sound and precise information in order to be able to draft well-documented reports and relevant recommendations.


10. Be sensitive

Particularly when interviewing detainees, visitors should be sensitive to the situation, mood and needs of the individual, as well as to the need to take the necessary steps to protect his or her security. In cases of allegations of torture and ill-treatment, visitors should be aware of the problems of re-traumatization.


11. Be objective

Visitors must strive to record actual facts, and to deal with both staff and prisoners in a manner that is not coloured by feelings or preconceived opinions.

12. Behave with integrity

Visitors should treat all detainees, authorities and staff, and their fellow visitors with decency and respect. They should not be motivated by self-interest and should be scrupulously honest. In all their dealings they should operate in accordance with the international human rights standards that they are mandated to uphold.

13. Be visible

Within the place of detention, visitors should make sure that staff and detainees are aware of the methodology and mandate of the visiting body, that they know how to approach them. Visitors should wear a badge or other means of identification. Outside the place of detention, the work of visiting mechanisms should be publicised through written reports and careful use of the media.