A newly released United Nations manual promises to advance ethical and effective policing practices worldwide by outlining practical steps to implement the recently developed “Principles on Effective Interviewing for Investigations and Information Gathering,” also known as the “Méndez Principles.” The U.N. Manual on Investigative Interviewing for Criminal Investigations is being introduced at a side event today during a session of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC’s) Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice  in Vienna.

The heads of the three U.N. agencies publishing the manual, including the UNODC, explain in their Forward that the principles advanced three years ago “reflect a growing global movement calling for a shift from confession-driven interrogation techniques to non-coercive interviewing methodologies.” As such, the aim is that the manual builds on this momentum to contribute to the “global effort in eliminating torture and ill-treatment during interrogations and investigations.”

As noted in a 2021 Just Security series delving into the principles and the evidence on which they are based, despite international law’s absolute prohibition of torture and ill-treatment, inhumane practices persist during questioning by law enforcement and intelligence officials. That is especially true in efforts to “fight crime,” obtain confessions, and “combat terrorism.” The post-9/11 torture program in the United States starkly exemplified such cruel and misguided practices.

But scientific research has increasingly documented the efficacy of non-coercive interviewing for gathering accurate and reliable information, while showing the ineffectiveness of torture and cruelty. That growing evidence base has provided a crucial impetus and foundation for a paradigm shift in interviewing strategies. The group of global experts who drafted the Méndez Principles embraced the pillars of science, law, and ethics to create a document providing a concrete alternative to interrogation driven by pressure to gain an admission of guilt. The U.N. high commissioner for human rights at the time, Michelle Bachelet, opened the June 2021 launch event for the document, and since then, more than 50 countries from around the world have expressed support for it.

Alongside the UNODC, the new U.N. manual is approved (“owned”) by the Department of Peace Operations’ U.N. Police Division and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. It has also been approved by the U.N. Inter-Agency Task Force on Policing and the Global Focal Point for the Rule of Law. The Vienna event where the manual will be released is organized by Norway and has received widespread co-sponsorship from all five continents. Officials from the three lead U.N. agencies for the manual will address the gathering, and high-ranking police officials and prosecutors from Ghana, Thailand, and Brazil will share their perspectives on the significance and utility of it.

Juan Méndez, the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment who inspired and was co-chair of the development of the principles that bear his name, noted during a validation conference for the U.N. manual in Norway last November that the new document confirms and authenticates the value of the approach.

Accomplishments and Signals

The manual accomplishes at least three significant tasks. First, it offers clear direction to police officers working under U.N. command on training, mentoring, and executive functions. Secondly, it establishes a comprehensive mandate and doctrine on investigations and interviewing practices for U.N. entities engaged in providing technical assistance and training to law enforcement agencies. Lastly, it offers guidance on the monitoring of policing standards, including those that pertain to human rights, pursuing a unified standard for policing across different regions.

The manual signifies at least three important developments. First, it reinforces the international standards initiated by the Méndez Principles for investigative thinking and interviewing. By establishing clear guidelines in a U.N. document, it provides a framework to help law enforcement agencies worldwide adopt a consistent methodology, fostering a more effective approach to investigations.

Second, it democratizes access to research-based knowledge and skills that were previously hidden behind paywalls.  Now crucial science and methodology that can significantly enhance investigative practices is accessible to all free of charge in the manual with the contribution of the researchers and experts involved in the work, breaking down barriers to education and ensuring that every practitioner has the tools they need.

Third, the manual elaborates on the concrete method for replacing manipulative, deceitful, and coercive practices with specified techniques that not only comply with human rights standards but also have been found by research to be more effective. As the manual’s Forward states:

The manner in which law enforcement agencies conduct interviews significantly impacts the outcome, fairness, and reliability of any investigation and subsequent criminal proceedings. The manual integrates principles of human rights-compliant policing and criminal investigation by offering a suite of effective techniques as an ethical and effective alternative to flawed practices that rely on the use of torture and ill-treatment to elicit confessions.

Upholding Individual Dignity While Improving Information Reliability

By prioritizing ethical and legal standards, the manual details a shift towards procedures that uphold the dignity of individuals while improving the accuracy and reliability of the information gathered. In a nutshell, investigative interviewing is rapport-based and concerns which questions to ask, how to ask them, and in what order. The purpose of an interview is to gather as much accurate and reliable information as possible to eliminate doubt about matters under investigation.

The method involves strategic planning for how to think about and use evidence during interviews to ensure that it stands the test of trial. The evidence is continuously tested against the investigative hypotheses. This permits a process of falsification and abductive reasoning similar to that of the fictitious detective Sherlock Holmes. Audio and video recording safeguards rights and evidence in its original form and serves as a tool for evaluation and improvement – along with creating more data for further scientific study. The method is rooted in science, has a proven track record and is used in anything from terrorism cases to bicycle theft. It works in interviews with victims, witnesses, and suspects.

Even before the release of this new document, U.N. entities, along with regional and national documents/jurisprudence, have referenced and cited the Méndez Principles more than 40 times since 2021. This includes U.N. Resolutions and Declarations (see for example here, here and here), U.N. human rights bodies (see here, here and here), U.N. treaty bodies and Special Procedures (see here, here and here), along with regional organizations and regional human rights bodies (see e.g., here, here and here). Such acknowledgment affirms that the principles are now seen as a source of persuasive international guidance.

Expanding Effective Practice

At the same time, a growing group of academics, practitioners, and policymakers are working together to enable wider implementation of the Méndez Principles through a four-year networking project entitled ImpleMéndez (the three of us help manage the project). It is funded by the European Cooperation in Science and Technology organization (CA22128) and runs from 2023 through 2027. It now has more than 170 members across 47 countries and includes experts in policing, human rights, psychology, law, linguistics, criminology, anthropology, neuroscience, political science, sociology, interpretation, and more.

The project is led by criminal investigation Professor Dave Walsh of Leicester De Montfort Law School in the U.K. It aims to create a strong, supportive environment for practitioner learning and engagement, appropriately incorporating legal frameworks, policies that support ethical and rapport-based interviewing, standards that are transparent and accountable, institutional leadership, training, guidance, and support, all from an established research evidence base.

The project will develop and nurture partnerships with practitioners such as policing agencies to help implement the Méndez Principles. It will host tailored training schools; organize networking events; establish centers focused on the principles in different jurisdictions and regions; and design frameworks to transform investigative practices.

For harmful practices to change, officers and agents need to know how to do their jobs differently and better. The new U.N. manual builds on the framework established in the Méndez Principles to further explain why traditional practices fail, what can replace them, and how to train personnel in the new approaches, put the principles into practice, and evaluate performance.

Effective interviewing was formerly the domain of a few select academics and police experts. Today, multiple countries and jurisdictions are either exploring or implementing investigative interviewing techniques and the principles that undergird them. The new U.N. manual helps multiply the impact to effectively tackle the common struggle against crime and violence, while respecting the human rights of all people.

IMAGE: A Ukrainian serviceman (L) looks on while a member of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner who was released from prison in Russia to fight in the war in Ukraine (R) sits in an interrogation room after being captured by Ukrainian soldiers near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, on March 12, 2023, amid Russia’s continuing assault on Ukraine. (Photo by SERGEY SHESTAK/AFP via Getty Images)