The Perils of Overthinking Prevention

This past week the Chair of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture warned us of the danger of overthinking. While such advice might seem somewhat unconventional coming from an internationally respected law academic such as Sir Professor Malcolm Evans, he might just have a point.

Speaking before the UN Third Committee on 15 October 2020 during the 75th session of the UN General Assembly, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture Chairperson ventured the following in relation to states overthinking the task of putting in place a National Preventive Mechanism:

“What are the real hurdles? … it can be a complex matter, particularly in federal countries … but perhaps surprisingly what I find has been the most difficult barrier is that some states try to overthink what is necessary, making it seem more complicated to establish the mechanism than is in fact the case.”

‘Do not overthink it’, Sir Professor Malcolm Evans informs the UN Third Committee.

“I am not ignorant of the legislative and organizational complexities of doing it, but it is actually not as difficult to put something in place as some seem to think. And so, I think, again drawing on our experience and willingness to engage, not overthinking the complexities, and just seeing it as something that is, if 68 countries around the world have achieved it, the others can.”

Readers can find the link to the full presentation to the UN Third Committee below.

Canada’s commonly cited default-position is that its federal structure makes the implementation of international human rights instrument significantly more difficult, a point not without some resonance. Meanwhile, and somewhat paradoxically, UN treaty bodies frequently haul Canada over the coals for failing to put in place an effective coordination mechanism, or other arrangement, at the domestic level to ensure the compliance of ratified instruments in practice.

Just cast a glance at the recent Concluding Observations of the UNCERD from 2017 (§7-8), UNCEDAW from 2016 (§10-11) and UNCESC from 2016 (§5-8) to see a selection of such comments. UN special procedures have similarly advanced recommendations in this same direction. In short, a standard refrain of the UN system is that Canada has no effective domestic structure to ensure follow-up to key UN treaty body recommendations.

For a resource-blessed country like Canada, there is no plausible defence against this entirely reasonable charge. The country cannot have it both ways, one might argue, namely claiming federalism as a reason for hindering the adherence to international human rights instruments, but then failing to ensure their effective implementation, once ratified, in practice.

Overthinking = indecision 🙂 – Rori D (2014).

Returning to the OPCAT, of the current 90 OPCAT States Parties, 68 States Parties have instituted NPMs. Of the 90 states, 12 are either federal states or are characterized by devolved political power, such as Spain and the United Kingdom for example.

The latter is an exceptional case in point. With four country jurisdictions, the UK’s 21-body hydra NPM structure has recently celebrated 10 years of operation. Equally, Australia, which ratified the OPCAT in 2017, is in the process of putting in place its NPM. Switzerland, a 26-canton structured federal state, succeeded in instituting in practice its Commission nationale de prévention de la torture in 2010, while Austria’s OPCAT mechanism, which sits within the country’s Volksanwaltschaft or Ombudsman, was forged through close civil society engagement and has been operational since 2012.

As a federal state, is OPCAT ratification too great a challenge for Canada? Is Canada in fact overthinking the task ahead? Might the same ring true for Canada’s other federal bedfellows which have not yet ratified the instrument?

Not all federal states have made the OPCAT leap, of course, including Canada, Ethiopia, India, Malaysia, Pakistan, Russia, United Arab Emirates, USA and Venezuela, few of which have stellar human rights track-records.

Indeed, if Canada is overthinking the imagined perils of OPCAT ratification, it is doing so behind tightly shut doors. More likely, Canada has probably not ‘overthought’ the OPCAT for quite some time, so far and quickly this human rights commitment seems to have fallen down the federal government’s list of human rights priorities.

Yet imagine if it had? Just imagine. The possibilities are endless. The Canada OPCAT Project has advanced its vision of a potential NPM, but there are certainly other views.

With a re-energized approach to OPCAT ratification domestically, no doubt the UN Subcommittee Chairperson, Malcolm Evans, and his 24 colleagues would be eagerly waiting in the wings ready to help Canada not to overthink this challenge, at least no more than absolutely necessary.

After all, while there may be dangers associated with overthinking things, there are arguably even greater human rights perils in doing absolutely nothing at all.


Watch the presentation of Sir Professor Malcolm Evans, Chairperson of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, to the UN Third Committee on 15 October 2020. The above quoted excerpt can be followed at the 46.35 – 47.55 minute marks.

Read other UN Subcommittee-related articles, including If the UN Subcommittee Ever Came to visit Canada, Does This Sound Vaguely Familiar, and SPT Healthcare Checklist for NPMs.

Learn more about the recent presentation to the UN Third Committee by UN Independent Expert on the Rights of Older Persons.