Prison chaplaincy and UN diplomacy

A visit to a UN meeting in Vienna (26-29 may 2023)

Wien plenum

In Vienna, the United Nations has an office for combating drugs and crime. It is the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). To this office belongs the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ).

Once a year, this commission invites the member states and members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to a meeting in Vienna. Every year, the ICCPPC is also invited together with IPCA (International Prison Chaplains Association). This year, as the European representative of the ICCPPC, I represented Catholic prison chaplaincy.

In the plenary session, the representatives of the member states sit next to each other in alphabetical order. Almost all of them speak - more or less well - English. However, the following other languages are also permitted: French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian and Chinese. The interpreters' booths are located in glass cabins quite high up above the meeting podium. Behind the member states are sitting the representatives of 'special' states. So it happens that the representative of the Holy See sits next to a representative of the Palestinian government. The NGOs round off the back rows.

In diplomatically perfect language, with friendly facial expressions, inviting gestures and extremely polite forms of address, well-dressed people deal with topics where there is a need for speech or action. It is mainly about how to prevent crime or how the penal system needs to be changed or improved. This year, it was about global escape routes and human trafficking, transnational crime, death in prison, overcrowded prisons, the possibility for all to have a defence lawyer, criminal justice reform, global trends in prisons, the practice of child marriages, female genital mutilation, the imprisonment of women in Iran ... But people also talked about the Nelson Mandela Rules, the minimum principles for the treatment of prisoners, or the UN Bangkok Rules, the United Nations rules for the treatment of women prisoners. Both principles were adopted by the UN General Assembly in earlier years.

At the plenary session of the Commission in Vienna, NGOs listen and can get an idea of which states are present, speak out and what concerns they bring to the table. I was surprised by projects from Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, or Kazakhstan. I found the great commitment of Thailand interesting, where there is an 'Institute of Justice' that seems to be very active. But NGOs from Pakistan, Iran, Lebanon, the Philippines, or Cambodia also made Asia seem very present. In contrast, the influence of the USA or the weight of South Africa and perhaps Kenya for the African continent was to be expected. For Europe, it was the Scandinavian countries that made a clear contribution. In addition to listening, it was possible to approach individual representatives during the breaks to establish or maintain contacts or to mediate.

Before the plenary sessions and during the lunch break, so-called side events took place. NGOs get together with each other or with individual member states to present a specific topic for an hour. Most of the time, the focus is also on 'best practices' in relation to the problems addressed. There you can learn that in Denmark there is an institute against torture that also deals with overcrowded prisons. Or you can hear an employee of the Ministry of Justice of some state talk about a certain problem and put him in touch with prison chaplaincy of this country. Another NGO, Penal Reform International, which has its headquarters in London, deals with the issue of death in prison and has published a brochure on the subject. Those who are looking for further material or want to get involved in this topic area can seek contact with them.

With so many topics, handshakes, business card exchanges, room searches, abbreviations, and foreign languages, one can get dizzy. If you want to make good use of the annual invitation, you must study the programme carefully beforehand and concentrate on individual topics or persons. It is good to join forces with other actors to set common objectives and possibly - months in advance - organise a side event. Important actors for ICCPPC could be: IPCA, the Holy See (represented by the Secretariat of State), other NGOs from the religious or human rights field, or individual states with whom one finds or wants to establish common ground in justice matters.

Doris Schäfer, ICCPPC representative Europe