Humanizing the prison world: A diplomatic victory in Madagascar

On 31 October 2019, Malagasy President, accompanied by his wife and the Minister of Justice, visited the Central Prison of Antanimora, the largest prison in the country, located in the capital, Antananarivo.

Malagasy President Andry Rajoelina visits the central prison of Antanimora, the largest prison in the country. Antananarivo, 31 October 2019 © OHCHR

He took the pulse of prison realities in Madagascar, exchanged with prisoners and prison officers, and subsequently proposed solutions not only to unclog prisons but also to improve the image of Malagasy justice.

During the visit, President Andry Rajoelina also pardoned six people, including three elderly people who had spent more than 30 years behind bars, a minor and two young people jailed for attempting to steal fish. Moreover, it was the first major visit of a president in a penitentiary center of the Big Island since the independence of the country on 26 June 1960.

The prison issue at the heart of political action in Madagascar

"Our greatest merit is to have managed to put the prison issue at the heart of reflection, discourse and political action in Madagascar. This is the biggest victory," welcomes Omer Kalameu, the representative of UN Human Rights in Madagascar.

The situation of prisons in Madagascar is indeed "deplorable", and "it is not an expression of the United Nations, it is the expression of the government itself," says Omer Kalameu. The situation is deplorable both in terms of the material conditions of detention and in terms of the judicial conditions of detention.

With a capacity of 800 people, Antanimora Prison now has over 4000 detainees. This prison overcrowding causes problems of health, hygiene, nutrition, not to mention the fact that, due to the lack of mattresses, some of them sleep on the floor.

Madagascar counts a total of 24000 prisoners in the various prisons of the country. 60% of them are in pre-trial detention and only 40% are sentenced. In short, detention conditions are below international standards.

If the President of the Republic has embarked on a humanization of the Malagasy prison world, with the main objectives of decongesting prisons and improving the image of Malagasy justice, the work of the local team of UN Human Rights, along with the support of the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations System played an important role in it.

For a diplomatic approach to human rights

On 5 July, 2019, at the UN Human Rights Global Meeting,  United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, emphasized that "Our interactions and commitments must produce positive results". And to achieve this, it was important to talk and work with a multitude of actors, and to be aware of the context political leaders find themselves in.

This diplomatic approach to human rights was adopted by the UN Human Rights team in Madagascar. "We engaged in two fronts. At the level of the technical support of the government and at the level of the advocacy and political lobbying," explains Omer Kalameu, who had in mind the 34th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) held in November 2019 in Geneva during which Madagascar would be examined.

UN Human Rights provides technical and financial support for the implementation of the 2019 new penal policy, which aims, in particular, to put an end to the systematic detention order, and explore other alternatives to detention.

These are the main actions implemented as part of this support: Reactivation of the "Comité des Garanties Judiciaires" (Case Flow Management Review) that has been dormant for some years; solicitation and involvement of technical and financial partners; funding of criminal court sessions and mobile courts hearings; capacity building training for magistrates and lawyers; Establishment of the pool of human rights lawyers; Production and distribution of more than 1000 copies  of the unified Code (penal law, criminal procedure law, military justice law) and the compilation of international and regional treaties ratified by Madagascar..

In parallel, at the strategic level, UN Human Rights relies on the monthly high-level meeting between the resident coordinator of the United Nations system in Madagascar and the Malagasy Minister of Justice to influence public policies and government decisions in favour of human rights. "It takes a strong political backing from the resident coordinator to get our message to the highest level. It was therefore through this monthly meeting between the RC and the Minister of Justice that we were able to step up advocacy so that the issue of detention was a priority for the government", Omer Kalameu states.

The availability and the voluntarism of Madagascar also find their explanation in the context of the UPR, through which the country and its president can expect to obtain some political benefits. Moreover, during the UPR in November, the Minister of Justice noted with satisfaction the government's efforts to protect the rights of detainees and welcomed the invaluable support of partners including the United Nations System and UN Human Rights.

Tangible results

This diplomatic approach, which began long before Andry Rajoelina came to power in January 2019, has actually produced tangible results.

Indeed, in addition to the President's visit to the Antanimora Central House, his decision to pardon detainees who committed minor offenses, and the launch for the construction of the new Fianarantsoa Prison, the Government increased the allocated budget for prisons, which has made it possible to offer a new, more nutritious diet to prisoners.

Moreover, thanks to the advocacy of the Resident Coordinator and OHCHR, a funding from the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund (PBF) was used to electrify and set up a drinking water supply network at the Tsiafahy High Security Prison. This PBF support had a catalytic effect: it stimulated the contribution and support of other bilateral partners for the improvement of the prison situation in Madagascar. This was particularly the case of Norway, which contributed to build a separation wall between minors and adults in Ankazobe prison. In December, as part of activities to mark the Human Rights Week, the Ministry of Justice and UN Human Rights organised a reforestation and planting of fruit trees campaign in some prisons across the country.

In the short term, for UN Human Rights, it's about helping the government reverse the 60/40 ratio - which means having 60% of people who are convicts and 40% of people who are in pre-trial detention - and releasing 2000 people, by 31 December 2019 as the president Rajoelina stated it. In the medium and long term, it will be about putting in place necessary preventive measures. "After 31 December 2019, the work must continue to ensure that this criminal policy is effective, irreversible, sustainable and that we avoid experiencing the same mistakes again and again", says Omer Kalameu.

11 december 2019

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