Top UN Disability Expert Urges OPCAT Ratification & End to Disability Based Deprivation of Liberty

A leading United Nations disability expert concluded an 11-day mission to Canada on Friday by urging the country to ratify the OPCAT in a broader focused, critical End of Mission Statement. In the same document the UN expert expressed concern about the over-representation of persons with disabilities in adult and youth prisons and their deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability in healthcare settings.

The Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, wound up her extended mission to Canada in the nation’s capital, Ottawa, on 12 April 2019, having visited cities and communities in Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

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Catalina Devandas Aguilar, United Nations, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities during A Day For All, Event. 3 December 2015. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

In the statement the UN disability expert highlighted an array of concerns, including vis-à-vis Canada’s legal and policy framework. In this connection she urged Canada to ratify the OPCAT as well as other key international human rights instruments.

In relation to the wider issue of deprivation of liberty Catalina Devandas Aguilar advanced various concerns, not least concerning prisons. She stated:

“I am very concerned about the overrepresentation of persons with disabilities, particularly those belonging to indigenous or other minority communities, in both prisons and the juvenile justice system. I have also received alarming information that persons with psychosocial disabilities are diverted to mental health courts for minor offences where they are subjected to higher penalties and stricter regimes.”

More generally, the UN Special Rapporteur expressed disquiet about deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability in Canada.

In January 2019 the UN disability expert issued a report, ‘Rights of persons with disabilities’, which underscored the widespread deprivation of liberty of persons on the basis of impairment:

“The deprivation of liberty on the basis of impairment is a human rights violation on a massive scale. Persons with disabilities are systematically placed into institutions and psychiatric facilities, or detained at home and other community settings, based on the existence or presumption of having an impairment. They are also overrepresented in traditional places of deprivation of liberty, such as prisons, immigration detention centres, juvenile detention facilities and children’s residential institutions. In all these settings, they are exposed to additional human rights violations, such as forced treatment, seclusion and restraints.” (§85)

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Abandoned psychiatric institution by Michael Hummel (2009).

The UN disability expert witnessed glimpses of this depressing global reality during her mission to Canada, voicing the following concerns:

“Provincial and territorial legislation across Canada provides for the involuntary hospitalization and treatment of persons with psychosocial disabilities, in contradiction to article 14 and 25 of the CRPD. For example, the Mental Health Act of British Columbia contains very broad criteria for involuntary admissions and, once detained, a person can be forcibly treated without their free and informed consent, including forced medication and electroconvulsive therapy.”

As highlighted on this website a few weeks ago, a critical report by the Office of the Ombudsperson of British Columbia cast a long, dark shadow over the efficacy of fundamental detention safeguards in the province’s mental health institutions. In a word, they have been mostly ignored in practice.

The UN expert’s End of Mission Statement continues:

“I have been informed that the rates of involuntary admissions and community treatment orders are increasing across Canada. Similarly, the number of inpatient beds in psychiatric hospitals, particularly in forensic units, is also increasing. In addition, different interlocutors told me that there is a significant number of persons with psychosocial disabilities who no longer need to be in the hospital but cannot leave due to the lack of community-based alternatives.”

“I urge the provincial and territorial governments to transform their mental health systems to ensure a rights-based approach and well-funded community-based responses, ensuring that all health care interventions are provided on the basis of free and informed consent.

“I have also noticed that there is a lack of independent monitoring of mental health facilities and institutions. I would like to recommend the provincial and territorial governments to establish independent monitoring mechanisms for centers of deprivation of liberty, including hospitals and institutions.”

Several of the above concerns regarding the deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability and use of coercion were also underscored by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health during a November 2018 mission to Canada.

In a report issued earlier this year the Canada OPCAT Project also highlighted the lack of independent oversight of such institutions, a point echoed by the UN Committee against Torture during its November 2018 examination of Canada.

Whether Canada will act on these collective concerns, including by ratifying the OPCAT, remains to be seen. Regrettably, there is little to suggest that OPCAT ratification is a political priority for the Canadian Government at the present moment, despite its past assertions to the contrary.  

On a slightly more positive note the UN Special Rapporteur concluded her End of Mission Statement by emphasizing the following:

“As a highly-developed nation, Canada still lags behind in the implementation of its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There are significant shortcomings in the way the federal, provincial and territorial governments of Canada respect, protect and fulfill the rights of persons with disabilities. Notwithstanding, the country has the potential to undertake a major transformation and fully embrace the human rights based approach to disability introduced by the Convention. The various pilot initiatives and good practices in place could, if adequately scaled up, promote systemic change for persons with disabilities in Canada.”  

The UN Special Rapporteur’s full report on her visit to Canada is scheduled to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2020.

Finally, Canadian civil society actors may also wish to take note that, in August/September 2019, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will draft the List of Issues Prior to Report in relation to Canada and its second periodic review. This moment will be a timely opportunity for Canadian civil society to indicate to the UN Committee the key issues to which Canada should be responding in its subsequent report. The Canada OPCAT Project will keep readers posted of any developments in this respect.


Read the End of Mission Statement.

Read the UN Special rapporteur report focused on ending deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability. Lire le rapport en français.

An alternative version of the report designed for wider distribution is also available.

Explore the Special Rapporteur’s dedicated website.

Visit the related OHCHR website on Catalina Devandas Aguilar’s work.