UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to Visit Canada?

The devil, as many a good human rights lawyer will tell you, is often to be found in the detail.

At first blush, the recently published Annual Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention conveys to the reader the exceptionally busy comings-and-goings of a typical under-resourced, over-worked UN special procedure. And to think all this heroic human rights work is done for free.

Yet a deeper dive into the above report, which was presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 13 September 2019, reveals that Canada was one of 18 countries which the Working Group requested to visit in the course of 2018. The prospect of such a country visit was floated with the Canadian authorities in a communication dated 11 May 2018.

Barring Freedom by meesh (2012)

So, what happened? When did the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention arrive on our Canadian shores, which detention facilities did it visit, and what were this expert body’s key findings?

After all, Canada has proven to be quite a popular destination for the UN’s special procedures over the past couple of years, with visits undertaken by the UN Special Rapporteurs on the rights of persons with disabilities, violence against women and the right to health, to name just a few.

Alas, paragraph 51 of the Working Group’s 2019 report reveals the following:

On 22 October 2018, the Permanent Mission of Canada stated that the Government is unable to accommodate a visit within the requested time frame, and indicated that it would propose different dates.”

Regrettably, no information is provided in the Working Group’s Annual Report, indicating if Canada has subsequently proposed different dates and/or whether a visit is in the pipeline for late 2019 or 2020.

It was notable that the governments of other countries offered similar apologies in this respect. Guatemala stated that it had other commitments in the area of human rights in 2018, proposing a visit at the end of 2019. The Colombian government stated that, given the electoral period, it would need to identify a more convenient time. Similarly, Indonesia informed the Working Group that it had a number of prior commitments to receive special procedures in 2018 and it would consult the capital on an appropriate time for the visit. Kazakhstan proposed discussing the dates of such a visit at a subsequent time.

Happily, the governments of Australia, Hungary, Qatar and Greece agreed to visits by the Working Group and/or proposed specific dates for such missions to their countries.

Down Under
Light in the Darkness by Drew Douglas (2007).

Regardless, a visit to Canada by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention would still be opportune. After all, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture is not going to visit the country anytime soon!

Canadian readers with somewhat more elephantine memories may recall that the expert body previously visited Canada in June 2005. The related report called for change in several different spheres, as follows:

On the basis of its findings, the Working Group makes recommendations to the Government in the areas of the overrepresentation of Aboriginals in the prisons, the excessive use of pretrial detention with regard to accused belonging to vulnerable social groups, and unmet needs for legal aid. As far as detention under immigration law is concerned, the Working Group recommends some changes to law and/or policy. Finally, the Working Group recommends that terrorism suspects be detained in the criminal process, with the attached safeguards, and not under immigration laws.” (page 3)

Unquestionably, several of the above concerns from 2005 still hold true in 2019. For example, Penal Reform International’s flagship report, Global Prison Trends 2019, revealed a fairly damning picture of the continuing high incarceration rates of Indigenous men and women in the country’s prisons, as featured in these pages. The UN Committee against Torture voiced various criticisms less than a year ago during its examination of Canada in Geneva in November 2018, including in relation to immigration detention as well as resort to security certificates.

All of which makes one wonder even more whether an alternative date has as yet been proposed by the Canadian authorities and whether a visit to Canada by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention can be expected anytime soon?

For the answers to these questions, dear readers, stay tuned to the Canada OPCAT Project.


Read the Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention report to the UN Human Rights Council (UN Doc. A/HRC/42/39, 16 July 2019).

Read the report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s mission to Canada in 2005 (UN Doc. E/CN.4/2006/7/Add.2, 5 December 2005).

Visit the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s homepage.