Who visits places of detention?

Under the Geneva Conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been monitoring places of detention during armed conflict, visiting both prisoners of war and civilians, for about a century. With the development of regional and international instruments, several other mechanisms have started to monitor places where people are deprived of their liberty.

This overview includes the different types of existing monitoring bodies at the national, regional and universal level, all totally independent from the detaining authorities.

The Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture (OPCAT) has established a system of preventive visits to places of detention by mutually reinforcing international and national bodies. These visiting mechanisms can access any place of detention, without prior authorisation from the authorities.

National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs)

NPMs have the mandate to conduct regular preventive visits to all places where persons are deprived of their liberty. NPMs should be independent from the State and its authorities, both from a financial and a functional point of view.

States can designate a new or an existing body as NPM. They can also designate several bodies. NPMs should be gender-balanced and include representatives of minority groups, as well as members from a variety of professional backgrounds.

Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT)

The SPT, with 25 independent experts, is the international component of the visit system established by the OPCAT. The SPT monitors conditions in detention and treatment of persons deprived of their liberty through country visits and also advise on OPCAT implementation, in particular by support the establishment and functioning of NPMs.

More information on NPMs and on UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT).

Other bodies at national level

Ombudspersons offices and national human rights institutions (NHRI)

Ombudspersons offices and NHRIs usually have broad mandates to monitor and promote respect for human rights, combined with a power to examine individual complaints. This often includes the possibility of visiting and monitoring places of detention.

The depth and frequency of the visits, however, may vary. Visits to places of detention are often undertaken to verify specific allegations and investigate an individual complaint rather than to examine the conditions of detention with the aim of pre-empting future problems. Ombudspersons and national human rights institutions usually report publicly to the Parliament and their recommendations are, thanks to the bodies’ official status, viewed as authoritative.

NGOs and civil society organisations

In some countries, civil society organisations have managed to get authorisation and agreement to regularly monitor places of detention. Monitoring by civil society is usually characterised by a large degree of independence of the authorities. Because of their independence, their findings and reports often get a great deal of publicity. However, the legal basis for monitoring can often be weak, based on a written agreement with the concerned ministries, or even an individual minister. This leaves the monitors dependent on the political will of the authorities.

International level

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture

UN Committee against Torture

Regional level

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)

The Special Rapporteur on the Rights of persons deprived of their liberty designated by IACHR

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture

The Special Rapporteur on Prison’s and Conditions of Detention in Africa

The Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa