Human Rights Advocacy
Human rights for all, even criminals
Barrister Harun ur Rashid
In 1945, the Charter of the UN (Articles 1, 55 and 56 of the Charter) and in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirmed certain fundamental human rights for individuals. Article 1 of the Declaration lays down the core element of human rights as follows:
“All human beings are born free and equal indignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”
Fundamental rights are those that are inalienable and cannot be denied to any person by their governments. Some of these rights are: right to life, prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, freedom of religion, thought and conscience. They are fundamental because they cannot be diluted in any situation and are related to the dignity and worth of human beings.
It is noted that fundamental rights are applicable to all individuals including criminals.
We must remember criminals are not born. They are made or victim of certain circumstances relating their background of life.
The criminals should not be looked down upon by community, rather the community and governments should ensure that they are rehabilitated in society as good and productive citizens.
Causes of crimes
The basic reason of criminal behaviour has been the subject of study of many criminologists and psychiatrists over the years. Criminal behaviour often arises due to extreme poverty or psychological disorders. Often criminals are children of broken homes or orphans, neglected in society.
Some social scientists believe the following causes of crime:
(a) Crime is not a normal behaviour and most of them need support or psychic help.
(b) Judicial punishment must be balanced by remedies, and not by retribution
There is another set of criminals that are patronized by some affluent elements of society for their own purposes. They are “professional criminals” in the sense that their profession is crime and they do it because they are protected from the law-enforcing agencies and are rewarded. They constitute a separate group and largely owe to their origin to the criminalisation of politics.
Rehabilitation of criminals
Criminals should be viewed from perspective of rehabilitation and correction of their anti-social behaviour. In most advanced societies, prisons have been designated as correction centres. Long-term imprisonment and other measures which result in isolating an offender from the community are not considered effective in his/her rehabilitation because often such isolation may aggravate the situation.
Chief Justice Burger of the US Supreme Court once said : “ I have long believed and said that when society places a person behind walls and bars, it has a moral obligation to take reasonable steps to try to work with that person and render him or her better equipped to return to a useful life as a member of society.”
The imprisonment can only be effective if correction centres ( prisons) uses educational, moral, religious and psychological assistance to the criminals. Criminals should be made aware that they are causing disservice to community by their anti-social behavour. Correction centres should also investigate the root causes of criminal behaviour of a person. Is it due to socio-economic deprivation or psychological?
Torture should not be conducted to any individual to extract confessions. The UN Torture Convention of 1984 bans such conduct and the perpetrators of torture are punishable because it is an international crime.
The suspected criminals enjoy the right of presumption of innocence. They are innocent unless they are found guilty by the courts. It could be that DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) testing of the samples recovered from the crime scene or victims with the blood samples in case of murder taken from suspects may acquit alleged criminals. In the US many criminals serving long sentence of imprisonment have been found not guilty of crimes for which they were convicted and imprisoned.
Rights of criminals
Alleged criminals have two sets of rights: (a) substantive and (b) procedural. The substantive rights include fundamental rights under the Constitution and the judiciary must interpret them in the widest amplitude permissible, having regard to the principles of law in this field.
Procedural rights include a right that law-enforcing agencies should deal with them with civility. Criminals or suspected criminals must not be physically abused at their hands while they are in custody of the law-enforcing agencies. Procedural rights include also easy access to the lawyers and courts and visitation by their relatives in prisons.
Where the rights of a prisoner are violated the writ jurisdiction of the High Court can be invoked. The judiciary has a monitoring responsibility to ensure that prisoners are treated according to the rules and regulations by the corrective (prison) administration. A prisoner has a constant companionthe court armed with weapon “ habeas corpus”. Implicit in the power of the court to ensure that health and mental well being are looked after in the correction centres (prisons).
Another question is that when criminals are imprisoned, who does take care of their families? It is an issue of extreme importance to both to the members of family and to society. It is often overlooked that government or the society has a responsibility to take care of them. Unless they are looked after, they may in future be involved in anti-social behaviour.
Criminals are not by mere reason of their conviction are to be deprived of their fundamental rights as guaranteed by the Constitution and international human rights instruments.
Oscar Wilde's following poem about prison life holds good even today:
“How vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air;
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there.”
The author is Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.
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