Public Health Emergencies & Arbitrary Detention

Shudder to think that Canada might ever be plagued by anything worse than the current Covid-19 public health emergency. Yet the reality is that more than just a few unlucky countries are often beset by outbreaks of disease, sometimes both frequently and severely.

Whether the outbreaks are global, regional or national in scope, Cholera, Influenza, Plague, Smallpox, Ebola, Rift Valley Fever, Meningitis, Yellow Fever, Zika, SARS, Monkeypox and numerous other frighteningly sounding maladies typically afflict the inhabitants of such far less fortunate countries.

As someone who lived in West Africa during the 2014-2015 Ebola crisis, Covid-19 is one of just a number of dreadful blights out there, believe you me.

Yet even when such epidemics do visit upon a society, it is clear that those entities wielding power must not deprive persons of their liberty in an arbitrary manner, whether they be persons perceived to be suffering from a given health condition or otherwise.

Recently the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) issued an excellent new thematic position paper (known as a ‘Deliberation’) on ‘the prevention of arbitrary deprivation of liberty in the context of public health emergencies‘. From the title of the document, it is axiomatic that the principles contained therein would apply to an array of public health emergencies, and not just the present Covid-19 crisis.

In the accompanying press release, the UN Working Group recalled that:

…the prohibition of arbitrary detention is absolute even during times of public emergencies and urged governments worldwide to prevent arbitrary deprivation of liberty in the context of the measures currently adopted for controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The statement continued:

In its newly adopted Deliberation No. 11, the expert group establishes a set of guidelines to prevent arbitrary deprivation of liberty during public health emergencies, stressing that any control measures “must be publicly declared, be strictly proportionate to the threat, be the least intrusive means to protect public health and imposed only while the emergency lasts”.

The Storm Breaks – Tim Sackton (2012)

What has any of the above to do with Canada, you might reasonably ask? In a word, the risk of arbitrary detention exists anywhere, more so during times of national crisis when emergency powers are resorted to or are legislated in quick measure.

What is more, a closer glance at the UN Working Group position paper reveals a wealth of advice and guidance of direct relevance to the Canadian context. In particular, paragraphs 12 to 16 literally jump off the page. For instance:

The Working Group … calls upon all States to pay particular attention to the requirements of necessity and proportionality of deprivation of liberty in the context of public health emergencies, such as the newly emerging emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic. (12)

In particular, States should urgently review existing cases of deprivation of liberty in all detention settings to determine whether the detention is still justified as necessary and proportionate in the prevailing context of the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, States should consider all alternative measures to custody. (13)

In view of the hotly-debated point of discussion whether the federal, provincial and territorial authorities have taken sufficiently swift steps to address existing levels of incarceration during the current public health emergency, the above excerpts are highly relevant. One need only peruse the multiple daily news articles on this topic, as featured on this website, to see why.

Arbitrary Limitations – Marcin Wichary (2008).

Similarly, paragraph 15 of the Working Group’s Deliberation echoes current calls to ensure that certain categories of detainees are released from detention in Canada, as follows:

The Working Group is aware that COVID-19 mostly affects persons older than 60 years of age, pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding, persons with underlying health conditions, and persons with disabilities. It therefore recommends that States treat all such individuals as vulnerable. States should also refrain from holding such individuals in places of deprivation of liberty where the risk to their physical and mental integrity and life is heightened.

And not forgetting Deliberation paragraph 16, which states the following:

Lastly, noting that overcrowding and poor hygiene pose a particular risk of spreading COVID-19, States should seek to reduce prison populations and other detention populations wherever possible by implementing schemes of early, provisional or temporary release for those detainees for whom it is safe to do so … Noting the obligation arising from the Convention on the Rights of the Child of not detaining children, particular consideration should be given to releasing children and women with children, and also those serving sentences for non-violent crimes.

Readers can make their own minds up whether the guidance in the above paragraphs has been followed across-the-board in Canada in the light of current day conditions. Clearly, certain provinces have acted more quickly than others, while federal prison decarceration has to date been limited.

Finally, as regards Canada’s severe, on-going case of OPCAT stupor, Deliberation No. 11 offers a much-needed tonic:

The Working Group encourages States to ratify the Optional Protocol to the
Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and States that are a party thereto to adhere to the advice of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to States parties and national preventive mechanisms relating to the coronavirus pandemic.
(30)

The Working Group has also underscored a key point previously advanced by other influential actors:

The Working Group acknowledges the particular challenges that the prevailing public health emergency poses to such independent oversight as those involved in human rights monitoring seek to uphold the principle of “do no harm”. However, the prevailing public health emergency cannot be used as a blanket justification to prevent all such independent oversight. The Working Group calls upon all States to allow visits of independent oversight mechanisms to all places of deprivation of liberty during the COVID-19 pandemic and other public health emergencies. Due consideration should be given to such practical measures as staggering the visits of oversight bodies, allowing for extra telephone and internet contact and establishing hotlines and the use of personal protection equipment. (29)

In this respect the Working Group echoes other United Nations and Council of Europe advice, a conundrum recently discussed in-depth on this website.

In addition to the overall goldmine of human rights guidance and instruction contained in the paper, Deliberation No. 11 also lays down how any returning refusenik Snowbirds, or anyone else reluctant to self-quarantine for that matter, should be dealt with by the authorities. But readers will have to turn to paragraphs 8 and 19 of this first-class contribution to find out more.


Read UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, Deliberation No. 11 on prevention of arbitrary deprivation of liberty in the context of public health emergencies. Read the accompanying press release.

Find out more about the work of the WGAD.

Explore the WGAD’s other Deliberations.

Will the WGAD ever undertake a fact-finding visit to Canada? Read more.