Death in Custody

Towards an International Framework for Investigation and Prevention

The University Centre for Legal Medicine of Geneva and Lausanne, the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, the University of Bern, the International Centre for Prison Studies (King's College London), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) collaborated to undertake research relating to the conditions under which deaths in custody should be investigated and prevented in ethically acceptable ways that are based on principles and procedures in line with respect for human rights and humanitarian law.

The project has unfolded in several steps, culminating in the launch of Guidelines on Preventing Death in Custody. We firstly conducted a comprehensive review of the scientific literature, followed by a comparative analysis of existing guidelines and legal documents about investigation and prevention of deaths in custody from different continents to ensure diversity of global regions and levels of economic development. In order to include countries for which information was not otherwise accessible, questionnaires were developed that were transmitted to members from the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT), ICRC delegates and other experts to collect information from local authorities about their official or normal practice for investigating deaths in custody. In addition, interviews were held with experts and stakeholders in order to compare existing strategies for investigating deaths in custody and to evaluate knowledge about legal frameworks for investigation, as well as about basic forensic techniques feasible in countries where local forensic specialists are not available. Information obtained from these steps was analysed and presented to two types of specialists worldwide: experts in criminology, law and human rights with experience in prisons, and forensic experts experienced in humanitarian work, both of whom were asked to propose elements for guidelines not only regarding best practice in rich countries, but also regarding minimal techniques that will permit efficient death investigation in countries without sufficient infrastructure. The results of these interviews were combined with prior analytic work to produce draft practice guidelines which will prepare humanitarian workers for investigations of deaths in custody worldwide. In March 2011, a launch of these draft guidelines brought together experts to address unresolved or controversial issues which were then taken up during a final consultative process between specialists from the before-mentioned areas, ICRC delegates and experienced NGO members, fostering interdisciplinary dialogue on this difficult topic. Based on the revised guidelines, a training module will be developed to prepare humanitarian workers for investigations of deaths in custody worldwide. Learnings and outcomes related to the project will also be compiled in a book publication with contributions from various experts in the field of death in custody, including some who have worked on the current project.

For more information, please see

Elger BS, Tidball-Binz M, Mangin P: Mort en détention: Vers un cadre international d’investigation et de prévention. Rev Med Suisse. 2009; 5: S41-S43.

Who is who

Team Members

Prof. P. Gaeta and Prof. P. Mangin, University of Geneva.

Prof. M. Thali, University of Bern

Dr. V. Chetail, Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights

Dr. M. Tidball Binz and I. Hight, ICRC

International Collaborators

Prof. A. Coyle, International Centre for Prison Studies, School of Law, King's College, London

Prof. A. Stapleton, Professor of Law, Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University School of Law, Chicago