Canada & OPCAT Ratification – Does This Sound Vaguely Familiar?

“The OPCAT has now been ratified by 90 countries from all regions of the world, with Iceland and South Africa joining the OPCAT system so far this year. This is an impressive number but there are still a considerable number of states parties to the Convention against Torture which have not yet done so. All States Parties to the Convention against Torture are already bound to take preventive measures by virtue of article 2 of that Convention, and it has been the longstanding position of the SPT that that obligation is best fulfilled through ratification of the OPCAT, which is entirely focussed on effective prevention. Numerous states have undertaken to do so during the course of their Universal Periodic Reviews by the Human Rights Council: but these commitments sometimes seem to be swiftly made, but slowly fulfilled. The SPT hopes that the rate of growth in participation will quicken in the coming months as more states seek to honour their commitments to ratify.”

Statement by Sir Professor Malcolm Evans, Chairperson of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, to the 74th session of the General Assembly Third Committee in New York on 14 October 2019.

Sir Professor Malcolm Evans, Chairperson of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, presents to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly, 14 October 2019, in New York. Image copyright of UN Web TV.

If one reflects that over the years – many years – there have been repeated past high-profile statements (like the above) by Canada purporting to commit to the country’s potential ratification of OPCAT, then the overall lack of progress of the North American state to make good on such pledges (both to the UN Human Rights Council as well as other key UN bodies) is unquestionably disappointing.

Astonishingly, Canada first used the pledge of OPCAT ratification during its candidacy for membership of the UN Human Rights Council as far back as 2006, a pledge unfulfilled to the present day.

During its first Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the Human Rights Council in February 2009 Canada accepted the recommendation to possibly ratify the OPCAT. During its second UPR cycle in April 2013 Canada once again accepted in principle the recommendation to do so, even though it stated that at the time it had no plan to ratify the instrument. Nonetheless, Canada did not reject the recommendation outright at that time.

As recently as May 2018, during Canada’s third-cycle UPR by the UN Human Rights Council, some 27 countries urged Canada to either ratify the OPCAT or consider the ratification of the instrument. During this review Canada repeated its position that it was “… considering becoming a party to the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, as well as options to implement that instrument.”

Immigration detention
Palais des Nations, Geneva by UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre.

Canada reported back to the Human Rights Council during its 39th Session on 21 September 2018, stating that it had indeed accepted the recommendation to consider ratification of the OPCAT. Again.

Since 2018, no shortage of UN experts have urged Canada to advance and expedite the OPCAT ratification process, as highlighted on this website. Yet, disappointingly, little tangible progress has seemingly been made in practice to do so. The complete lack of transparency and publicly available information about any domestic process has further obfuscated the issue. Simply put, Canadian civil society remains well and truly in the dark about what is and what is not being done by Canada to make good on its UPR pledges.

In view of Canada’s (to put it kindly) patchy OPCAT track-record one cannot escape the distinct feeling that – to paraphrase Sir Professor Malcolm Evans above – OPCAT commitments have been swiftly made, but slowly fulfilled. Very, very slowly…


Sir Professor Malcolm Evans was joined by the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, and the Chairperson of the UN Committee against Torture, Jens Modvig, during the UN Third Committee session.

You can read Professor Evans’ full written statement to the UN Third Committee here or watch it on demand at around the 38-minute mark.

Watch the three torture prevention experts present their respective reports to the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly on 14 October 2019.

In addition, readers might wish to watch the ‘Prevention of Torture Press Conference’ from 15 October 2019.