United Nations Issues a Conduct Code for Law-Enforcement Officials Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With the adoption of its Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, the United Nations established international standards for police treatment of accused persons and prisoners.


The 1979 Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials provided important moral suasion to Western countries and numerous ethnically mixed countries such as South Africa, the Soviet Union, and some Eastern Bloc countries. The code advanced a high standard. The ideal picture of law-enforcement officials keeping high ethical standards and abandoning torture and other cruel treatment of accused persons and prisoners contrasts with real cases of police brutality in major American cities and the frequent misuse of firearms by the police and military in South Africa and Northern Ireland. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.N. (1948) United Nations;human rights

In the United States, as in virtually all countries, the standards of behavior, as well as the actual behavior, of law-enforcement officials differ from locality to locality. The quality of justice in Western countries is generally connected with the economic status of the accused persons. The U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials is a standard for nations to strive toward, regardless of how distant it might appear. The code is consistent with the many conventions that have addressed the numerous issues of human rights violations by government.

It is certain that some nations, after abolishing their own injustices against minorities and other persons, are keen to insist on improving the human rights records of countries that mistreat accused persons and prisoners. The care that American federal courts have given to the health and legal rights of prisoners, for example, is a great departure from the days of chain gangs and preventive detention. Many Third World countries are still grappling with the establishment of humane and politically neutral systems of criminal justice. The U.N. code fails to acknowledge serious cultural differences in approaches to breaches of the peace and punishment of convicted persons.

Even though not fully implemented, the 1979 code is praiseworthy for its recognition of the need to implement worldwide, as an extension of international conventions for human rights, a minimum standard of conduct for law-enforcement officials. President Carter, in proclaiming human rights as a legitimate facet of U.S. foreign policy, helped stir Western and non-Western nations, even the Soviet Union, to observe the letter of the code or suffer international condemnation. The 1979 code is another rejection of the letter of the domestic exclusion clause. United Nations;human rights Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, U.N. Human rights;treaties, conventions, and declarations Law enforcement, international standards Ethics;law enforcement

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Andenaes, Johannes. Punishment and Deterrence. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1974. Examines the treatment of prisoners in Norway, which has a penal system that is quite humane even when compared to those of other European nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ayouty, Yassin El-, Kevin J. Ford, and Mark Davies, eds. Government Ethics and Law Enforcement: Toward Global Guidelines. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2000. Collection of essays addresses the principles that governments need to apply in establishing law-enforcement policies. Includes informative appendixes and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conquest, Robert. Inside Stalin’s Secret Police: NKVD Politics, 1936-1939. New York: Macmillan, 1985. Discusses Stalin’s purges, during which innocent persons were compelled to confess to crimes to avoid torture.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dando, Shigemitsu. Japanese Criminal Procedure. Hackensack, N.J.: F. B. Rothman, 1965. Shows that in theory Japanese criminal procedures are based on American rules of evidence, but notes that Japanese paternalism makes for a less cumbersome criminal justice system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedman, Lawrence M. A History of American Law. 3d ed. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Comprehensive and impressive coverage of the history of American law. Objective and tough study examines the faults and shortcomings of the legal system, including vigilante law as an important facet of American legal heritage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nagel, Stuart S. The Legal Process from a Behavioral Perspective. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. Argues that ideals are often at loggerheads with practice, as law-enforcement officials, from patrol officers to appellate judges, are influenced by their respective class norms. Asserts that the criminal justice system is too often dependent on factors having little to do with law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">United Nations. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials. New York: Author, 1988. Presents the full text of the code of conduct.

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Categories: History