Legal Tools: International Standards on Criminal Defense Rights

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This document is part of the Open Society Justice Initiative’s Arrest Rights Toolkit, a resource for criminal lawyers, prosecutors, judges, and police—all those who play a role in ensuring that the rights of people accused of crimes are respected.  

Each year millions of people around the world are arrested or detained by the police or other law enforcement agents. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) sets out minimum universal guarantees to ensure that all people can defend themselves and be treated fairly. However, there is enormous variation across countries in terms of recognition and implementation of these rights in practice. Many countries fail to provide for the essential components of effective criminal defense, leaving suspects and accused persons in a vulnerable position: without legal assistance, without information about the case against them, and without the ability to apply for pretrial release. This can have catastrophic impacts on a person’s life.

This digest covers all of the core procedural rights that underpin access to justice and a fair trial. It sets out relevant extracts of the ICCPR, and summaries of all of the key case law interpreting those standards from the Human Rights Committee: 

  • the right to information about rights and charges, and access to evidence;
  • the right to self-representation or legal assistance from the earliest stages of the investigation, and the right to have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense;
  • the right to legal aid;
  • the right to be presumed innocent and the right to silence;
  • the right to be released from custody pending trial;
  • the right to participate in your trial, to be tried without undue delay, and to call witnesses;
  • the rights to free interpretation and translation; and
  • the right to appeal.

If you have any questions or feedback about the digest or would like to keep the Justice Initiative informed about reforms in your country, please contact Marion Isobel at marion.isobel@opensocietyfoundations.org.