Pandemics, reparations, technologies, women deprived of liberty and more…

As the UN Human Rights Council lowers the shutters on its 45th session in Geneva, it is hopefully still not too late to spotlight an important report which emerged during the four-week, mostly virtually-held human rights forum.

Amidst the stacks of published papers and reports, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention formally presented its 2020 Annual Report during the session, one which is jam-packed with items of human rights interest, including a focus on modern technologies and detention.

Formally presented to the Council by Working Group Chair Leigh Toomey on 21 September 2020, the latest Annual Report focuses on three thematic areas of interest, namely: (a) women deprived of liberty; (b) the right to legal assistance in preventing arbitrary deprivation of liberty; and (c) modern technologies and alternatives to detention. To say nothing of the report’s focus on two so-called ‘Deliberations’, it should be added.

Prison – Benjamin Horn (2018).

In this latter connection readers of this website will recall a recent feature highlighting the UN Working Group’s excellent Deliberation No. 11 on prevention of arbitrary deprivation of liberty in the context of public health emergencies, the timeliness of which was immaculate for this contemporary COVID-19 dominated age.

Yet the Working Group’s earlier Deliberation No. 10 on reparations for arbitrary deprivation of liberty also deserves a visit. With a focus on five main forms of reparation (restitution, rehabilitation, satisfaction, compensation, and guarantees of non-repetition) Deliberation No. 10 makes a very useful contribution to the existing literature on the subject, albeit from a slightly different angle. Both Deliberations are annexed to the main report.

Returning to the main trunk of the document, its three thematic threads will no doubt be areas of interest for readers, not least the accent on modern technologies. In this latter respect the UN Working Group has remarked:

Over the past few years, the Working Group has observed new opportunities that the use of modern technologies, such as electronic monitoring devices and telephone and Internet reporting, offers to minimize the need for States to resort to traditional modes of deprivation of liberty, depending on the legal regime. In principle, the use of digital technologies in providing alternatives to detention is a positive move. It limits the need for physical confinement of an individual in a closed environment, which usually represents a high cost to society and may lead to extended breaches of the rights of the individual concerned. The Working Group therefore welcomes the use of modern technologies to allow for alternatives to detention. (§57)

In the report the UN expert body calls on the Human Rights Council to seek a thorough study on the use of modern technologies as alternatives to deprivation of liberty with a view to providing guidance to UN Member States. Whether it does so or not, shall remain to be seen.

In relation to women deprived of their liberty, the UN Working Group depicts the following grim reality:

Despite the important progress made in developing global standards that promote the rights of women deprived of their liberty, the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of women continues to be of serious concern across the world. During the reporting period, the Working Group considered the situation of women deprived of their liberty in a variety of contexts, including detention resulting from the lack of access to reproductive health care; the protective custody of women in social care facilities; the de facto detention of women through restrictions imposed by private actors; and the detention of women in facilities not appropriate for the needs of female detainees. (§46)

Tall prison fence – Simon Brass (2007).

The UN Working Group continues:

The common element of all these cases was that the individuals were women and the Working Group found that this was the key reason for their deprivation of liberty. The Working Group shares the view of the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls that women’s deprivation of liberty is a significant concern around the world and severely infringes upon their human rights. As is clear from the above examples, such deprivation of liberty not only takes place in the criminal justice context, but women are also detained in the context of migration, in other administrative detention settings and in healthcare settings. (§48)

In this connection, the UN Working Group’s new report builds on the first-class work of the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women and Girl’s 2019 thematic report ‘Women deprived of liberty’, as featured on this website.

Briefly put, if you have to date missed the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s 2020 Annual Report, you could do much worse than take a closer look. Alternatively, you can watch last month’s formal presentation of the report before the UN Human Rights Council below.

Razor-sharp observers of the UN Human Rights Council may also have caught last week’s joint-statement by various UN special procedures, praising Canada on repatriating an orphaned 5-year-old Canadian girl from a detention camp in Syria.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention signed onto the said statement (along with six other UN special procedures), urging Canada as well as other countries to repatriate their citizens remaining in Syrian detention camps, especially children. The wretched conditions in such camps have been described in the joint-statement as reaching the threshold standard for torture, inhuman and degrading treatment under international law. The latter conclusion prompts the very simple question why is it taking such states so inordinately long to do so?


Learn more about the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Read its recently published Annual Report 2020.

Watch the Human Rights Council’s Interactive Dialogue with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention from 21 September 2020.

Read the UN special procedure joint statement UN experts welcome return to Canada of five-year-old orphaned in Syria (7 October 2020).

***As a final point of information, the UN WGAD wrote to Canada in April 2018 (see §72), requesting that it be permitted to undertake a fact-finding visit to the country (following such a visit in June 2005). No permission has, to date, been forthcoming, we understand. Given that no end of UN special procedures have visited Canada in past years, such apparent reluctance remains disappointing.