New Reports – Women Deprived of Liberty

“In the present report, the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice analyses the causes of deprivation of liberty of women from a gender perspective to provide an understanding of the ways in which women are uniquely and disproportionately affected by deprivation of liberty, owing to structural discrimination throughout their life cycle. While deprivation of women’s liberty manifests differently in different contexts, there are common underlying causes: the persistence of patriarchal systems which shape gender stereotypes and forms of discrimination that normalize them. The report contains recommendations to support States in developing and implementing comprehensive measures that are aimed at legal, institutional, social and cultural transformation.”

Women deprived of liberty – Report of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice (UN Doc. A/HRC/41/33, 15 May 2019).

This highly welcome recent UN report examines the various factors which result in women being deprived of their liberty, not least poverty and marginalization. In the Canadian context imprisonment for crimes related to poverty remains a clear factor for the incarceration of women.

Moreover, as argued in the report, poverty shapes not only the crimes of which women are accused, but also their interactions with the criminal justice system, which also have an effect on the likelihood of their incarceration and its length.  

As is also widely recognized, once convicted and incarcerated, women often have less access than men to rehabilitation and reintegration services, owing to a scarcity of gender-responsive custodial services designed for women inmates. This reality can lead to worse outcomes upon release, increasing the risk of recidivism and possibly leaving women in a cycle of incarceration.

The UN Working Group report identifies other key factors resulting in the deprivation of liberty of women globally, including discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes as well as women’s exposure to violence and conflict.

UN violence against women expert
Dubravka Simonovic, Special Rapporteur on violence against women present his report at the 38th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council. 20 June 2018. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

For an international perspective specifically on women in detention in Canada the newly published report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women on her April 2018 mission to Canada also merits a closer read.

The report calls on Canada to implement a whole range of important measures in relation to the treatment and conditions of women in detention, including, notably, Indigenous women.

Significantly, the Special Rapporteur urges Canada to ratify the OPCAT as well as to fully implement the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners and the UN Bangkok Rules.

In her report the UN Special Rapporteur focuses on an array of other issues within her mandate, including domestic violence, sexual assault of women and girls, trafficking, online violence and harassment, forced sterilization, and women who encounter multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence, specifically Indigenous women and girls.

The reports of the UN Working Group and UN Special Rapporteur are available for download.


Read more about the activities of the Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice.

Explore the work of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women.

Read more about Indigenous women in Canada’s prison system.

Read ‘The OPCAT – A Stuck Record?’ on Canada’s prolonged OPCAT ratification process.

Read the Canadian Correctional Investigator’s view on why Canada should ratify the OPCAT.

Posted by mp in Indigenous people, OPCAT, UN Special Rapporteur, Women prisoners, 0 comments

An OPCAT Women’s World Cup 2019?

With heightened anticipation FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 has finally kicked off in beautiful France. While our Canadian heroines have yet to kick a ball, Canada’s hopes and dreams are sky high. But will this be the tournament when the Canadian women’s national side finally fulfils its chock-a-block potential?

The high expectancy that Canadian national icon Christine Sinclair may succeed in surpassing Abby Wambach’s superbly impressive world-record tally of an amazing 184 goals will cause many a breath to be held. Just four goals short of this record, the Burnaby, B.C. native has every chance of making footballing history in the weeks to come in France.

Christine Sinclair’s red & white army by Matt Boulton (2012).

As a point of comparison, the men’s international football record is currently held by Iranian Ali Daei with 109 goals, while modern-day football idol (for some at least) Cristiano Ronaldo trails a colossal 99 goals behind Abby Wambach’s current record for women on a ‘mere’ 85 goals.

Our fixation with this record aside, the Canadian women’s squad finds itself corralled in Group E with Cameroon, New Zealand and the Netherlands. While not quite the tournament’s Group of Death, Canada will still have to make more than just a half-decent effort to progress further, starting in Montpellier on Monday evening (10 June) against Cameroon. Thereafter, New Zealand and the Netherlands will undoubtedly prove to be no push-overs.

Christine Sinclair (Trending Twitter Topics from 01.02.2019)

Yet what also strikes this writer about Group E – perhaps somewhat oddly – is that all the footballing nations in the pool have either signed or ratified the OPCAT. Bar Canada, that is.

Cameroon signed the instrument almost a decade ago, while New Zealand and the Netherlands ratified the OPCAT respectively in 2007 and 2010.  

Of all six World Cup 2019 clusters, Group F fares the worst with a 50% OPCAT ratification rate (Chile and Sweden have ratified the instrument, while USA and Thailand have not). In all of the other five groups, at least three of the four footballing nations have either signed or ratified the OPCAT.

In addition to Canada, other ‘OPCAT relegation’ sides include the Republic of Korea (in Group A), China (in Group B), Jamaica (in Group C), Japan (in Group D), and, as previously noted, USA and Thailand (in Group F). Readers can find a full list here.   

What does all this mean? In footballing terms, precious little of course. Yet in human rights terms these statistics are extremely illuminating of how much progress has been made in recent years to advance a crucially important international torture prevention instrument as well as, regrettably, the lamentable extent to which Canada has fallen behind the international pace.

In view of the publication earlier this week of the highly damning Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Reclaiming Power and Place, and its multiple Calls for Justice in relation to law enforcement and prisons and the treatment of Indigenous women and girls, the swift ratification of OPCAT should be at the forefront of the Canadian Government’s mind.  

No matter, let us hope that there is greater progress on the football fields of France in the weeks ahead than has been with the goal of OPCAT ratification and that the Canadian national women’s side succeeds in rising together to attain much-deserved and long-overdue glory.

The Canada OPCAT Project will be closely following their progress and wishes the team the very best of luck.


Meet the Canadian women’s football squad.

Read Louise Taylor’s new feature in the 8 June edition of the Guardian newspaper, From pink goalposts to blue plaques: a history of women’s football.

Read The OPCAT – A Stuck Record? on Canada’s lack of progress vis-à-vis OPCAT.

Discover how the OPCAT might be implemented in Canada in the 2019 paper, ‘Instituting A National Preventive Mechanism In Canada – Lessons Based on Global OPCAT Implementation’. 

Posted by mp in OPCAT, Ratification

New Publication – Implementation of the Bangkok Rules

Hot off the presses of the world-renowned international NGO, Penal Reform International, and its partner, Thailand Institute of Justice, comes another key resource aimed at supporting actors implement the UN Bangkok Rules.

This brand new practical resource, Guide to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of women prisoners: Implementation of the Bangkok Rules aptly complements PRI’s other publications which comprise its excellent UN Bangkok Rules Toolbox (as also highlighted in these pages under Other Resources). According to the authors of the new publication:

“Women and girls are a minority within prison systems, making up just 6.9 per of the global prison population. As a result, their specific needs and characteristics have tended to remain unacknowledged and unaddressed. Women continue to face particularly acute challenges and barriers in accessing programmes and services in prison, and there are often limited rehabilitation opportunities available to them.”

In the Canadian context, the Office of the Correctional Investigator has documented such challenges and barriers in its past Annual Reports. Similarly, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women echoed related concerns during its 2016 examination of Canada in Geneva, Switzerland.  

The authors have underpinned the utility of this guide on the implementation of the UN Bangkok Rules in the following terms:

“This new tool, developed in collaboration with the Thailand Institute of Justice, is designed for use by prison management, staff, policymakers and others involved in the criminal justice process, including legislators, judges and law enforcement officials. It aims to provide practical guidance on improving existing rehabilitation programmes and services and designing new ones, looking at different country contexts and taking into account location-specific challenges and opportunities.”

“This guide summarises the importance of good prisoner rehabilitation and social reintegration programmes and identifies the main barriers to successful rehabilitation, including the particular barriers faced by female prisoners and by specific groups of female prisoners such as girls, foreign nationals and women from ethnic minority groups. Identifying these barriers provides an insight into why additional efforts are needed to assist the rehabilitation of women offenders.”

Beyond the above users, Canadian detention monitors and human rights actors could equally employ this resource as a helpful reference point for gauging strong or weak domestic penal practice in the domain of the rehabilitation and social integration of women prisoners.

Similarly, in countries which have ratified the OPCAT (not to-date Canada), NPMs might also resort to the guide as a useful tool in assessing practice in this respect.

The thrust of this tool, found in part 2 titled Guidance, is especially relevant, comprising some four main sections, as follows:

  • Baseline for successful rehabilitation;
  • Education, vocational training and work;
  • Preparation for release and post-release support;
  • And rehabilitation programmes for specific groups.

As we human beings come in different shapes and sizes, the latter focus is sensitive to the needs of different types of prisoners. As such, this section centres on the rehabilitation needs of diverse groups including girls, pregnant women and women with children, foreign nationals, racial and ethnic minorities and Indigenous prisoners, prisoners with different mental and physical healthcare needs, LGBTI prisoners, as well as older prisoners.

barring freedom by meesh 2012

The publication concludes with a useful list of 10 key principles for gender-sensitive rehabilitation programmes, which in itself could act as a practical yardstick for Canadian detention monitors and penal reformers.

In a nutshell, the Guide to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of women prisoners: Implementation of the Bangkok Rules makes a valuable contribution to PRI’s myriad of other excellent resources on the subject as well as the wider implementation of the Bangkok Rules, which will be useful for human rights actors, penal reformers and detention monitors alike.  


Download the new publication, Guide to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of women prisoners: Implementation of the Bangkok Rules.

Read PRI/OSCE-ODIHR’s 2018 publication, Guidance Document on the Nelson Mandela Rules.

Learn more about how the incarceration of Indigenous Canada in PRI’s Global Prison Trends 2019.

Explore PRI’s other key resources, including on this website.

Learn more about the work of the Thailand Institute of Justice.

Posted by mp in Publication, Tools, Women prisoners

Introducing… OPCAT Academics

Regular visitors to the Canada OPCAT Project website will be aware that in recent weeks the website has highlighted an ever greater number of articles under the ‘Academic News & Views’ rubric. As the heading suggests, the aim of the post series is to highlight journal articles with a more academic slant on all things OPCAT/torture prevention. In order to make life somewhat easier for visitors to the website, we have corralled them together in a new OPCAT Academics section.

Academics by Ron Mader (2019).

If you have written any materials on the broad subject of torture prevention with an academic twist, please do let us know. The aim of the post series is not to critically review articles, but more to offer a quick overview of their content and publicize them among our ever increasing readership.

Thus, whether you are freshly starting out on your academic path or running a busy, well heeled university law or politics department, we would be delighted to hear from you.  

Consult the OPCAT Academics section here.

Posted by mp in Academic, OPCAT, Torture prevention

New Publication – SPT Health-Care Checklist for NPMs

“The availability and the quality of health-care in prisons are crucial indicators in assessing the risk of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and even torture.

National preventive mechanisms should ensure that they cover health-care issues comprehensively in order to fulfil their preventive mandate. The checklist … is recommended as a self-assessment tool to remind national preventive mechanisms of the critical health issues that they should consider in their evaluations of places of deprivation of liberty. The checklist is expected to reveal a general pattern of health-care issues that are, or are not, being addressed in their visit reports.”

National preventive mechanism checklist on health-care issues relating to the monitoring of places of detention (UN Doc. CAT/OP/7), published by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture 24 May 2019 (§2-3).  

Healthcare by Marco Verch (trendingtopics) 2019.

The SPT’s newly-published checklist breaks the issue of health-care down into eight specific areas. At just 3 or so pages in length, the resource can be easily used in practice. According to the checklist, NPMs (or other monitors for that matter) should ideally examine the following areas when visiting any given detention facility:

  • Admission procedures;
  • Files and records;
  • General health services;
  • Mental health services;
  • Health staff;
  • Sensitivity and professional ethics;
  • Practice;
  • And prison health environment.

The above focus on ‘health staff’ is especially interesting, as the checklist queries whether staff have been trained on the documentation of torture as well as on key instruments such as the Istanbul Protocol, UN Convention against Torture, San Jose Guidelines and the Nelson Mandela Rules.

The stated overall objectives of this internal checklist are to:

“(a) Remind national preventive mechanisms of the important health-care issues that need to be noted during their visits;

(b) Identify gaps in the capacity of national preventive mechanisms to monitor health aspects of torture prevention and, if necessary, strengthen their health expertise.”

The SPT authors of this helpful resource stress that the checklist is designed for internal use only and not as an instrument for assessing actual conditions in places of detention. As such, NPMs are encouraged to design their own health-care assessment tools for use in monitoring places of detention, which certain monitoring bodies have done so.

If readers can recommend any monitoring tools specifically on health-care, please do let us know. We would be very happy to hear from you.


Download the NPM health-care checklist in English.

Consult the SPT’s other resources for NPMs.

Read Professor Juan E. Méndez’ (2019) article ‘Right to a Healthy Prison Environment: Health Care in Custody Under the Prism of Torture’. 

View Penal Reform International’s Mental health in prisons: A short guide for prison staff.

Posted by mp in Health care, NPMs, Places of detention, SPT

COPCAT Shorts – UN Treaty Bodies Under Budgetary Cosh

“It is with a sense of urgency that we convey our deep concern regarding the critical funding situation affecting the UN’s human rights mechanisms and OHCHR…”

So opens an Open NGO letter regarding the critical funding gap affecting UN human rights mechanisms and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which was sent earlier this week to all UN Member States’ Permanent Missions to the United Nations in Geneva and New York.

The letter, which was signed by the Canada OPCAT Project among several hundred other civil society actors, expressed dismay about the potentially harmful impact on the functioning of the UN treaty bodies and special procedures caused by delays in payments by UN Member States’ assessed contributions to the regular UN budget as well as other budget cuts.

UNCAT 65th session Canada Probed
Palais Wilson – Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva by UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre

In an OHCHR written statement issued on 17 May the Chairpersons of the 10 UN treaty bodies also expressed concern about this unprecedented situation, stating:

“In April this year, the Chairpersons of all 10 treaty bodies were informed that six of them are very likely to have sessions in 2019 cancelled for financial reasons – an unprecedented consequence of some UN member States delaying payments due to the organisation.

This means that reviews already scheduled with States, as well as consideration of complaints by individual victims of serious human rights violations – including torture, extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances – will not take place as scheduled. The cancellation of sessions will also have numerous other negative consequences, and will seriously undermine the system of protections which States themselves have put in place over decades.”

Canada would be directly impacted by these potential cancellations as, during the autumn period, it is scheduled to be reviewed by three treaty bodies. These include the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (through the List of Issues Prior to Reporting procedure) and the UN Committee against Torture (through the one-year follow-up procedure).

The Open NGO letter calls on UN Member States to pay their assessed contributions without further delay, prioritize securing adequate funding for the UN human rights pillar and initiate discussions on how to reverse the trend of reduced regular budget for OHCHR.


Read the full Open NGO letter here.

Read OHCHR’s statement ‘UN budget shortfalls seriously undermine the work of the Human Rights Treaty Bodies’.

Posted by mp in Civil society, UNCAT, UNCRPD

COPCAT Shorts – Indigenous Canada Featured in Global Prison Trends 2019

“Indigenous peoples are heavily overrepresented in prison populations – particularly in Australia, Canada and New Zealand – and this is a persistent and growing problem, especially for women.” (21)

“Women from Indigenous communities and ethnic minorities face significant disadvantages in the criminal justice system, due to the double discrimination of gender and race – which is usually coupled with poor socio-economic status and education. The rate of criminalisation and imprisonment of Indigenous women is particularly concerning in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.” (20)

“Nearly half of all youth who were in custody in Canada in 2016–17 were Indigenous, despite making up only eight per cent of the youth population.” (24)

Excerpts from Penal Reform International’s Global Prison Trends 2019.

Indigenous Canadians in PRI's report, Global Prison Trends

Global Prison Trends is Penal Reform International’s annual flagship publication series which identifies topical developments and challenges in criminal justice, and prison policy and practice at the global level. 

PRI sets out a raft of key recommendations in the report. These include:

  • States should closely monitor the representation of foreign nationals and people from ethnic and racial minority or Indigenous backgrounds in criminal justice systems. They should review sentencing policies or practices to determine if they are discriminatory, and develop specific measures to meet the rehabilitation and reintegration needs of these prisoners;
  • Countries that have not ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture should do so. (42-42)

Global Prison Trends 2019 can be downloaded here in English.

Read the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s (NWAC) policy backgrounder, Indigenous Women in Solitary Confinement.

Explore NWAC’s factsheet on Prison Issues.

The ICPA’s March 2019 newsletter on solitary confinement can be read here.

Examine the ICPA’s focus on independent oversight of prisons in Canada.

Posted by mp in Indigenous people, Prisons, Solitary confinement

Academic News & Views: The Australian NPM Challenge Ahead

Canadian readers looking for a searching assessment of the on-going challenge to implement the OPCAT in a federal state need look no further than Professor Richard Harding’s new article in the current Special Issue on the OPCAT of the Australian Journal of Human Rights. Compared with other writers, the author offers a more critical account of both the ratification and implementation-related processes of the OPCAT instrument in Australia.

Contextually, the writer advances an absorbing historical account of the background to OPCAT ratification, beginning as far back as 2002. In doing so, he maps out four different stages in the process, spooling forward to the present day when Australia finds itself grappling with the challenge of putting in place its NPM before the January 2022 deadline.

While much positive has been written about the overall OPCAT consultation process in Australia, not least in these pages, Richard Harding’s more critically pitched eye on the subject matter arrives at an opportune moment in terms of the sizeable task ahead.

challenge ahead
Prison by Ikhaan (2010).

In the article the author sums up the crux of the problem as follows:  

“First and foremost, there must be full commitment to implementing the NPM structure domestically. The journey towards ratification has been marked by ambivalence – as to the basic need for an NPM structure, as to whether existing structures can carry out the role, as to the necessary levels of funding and resources, and as to the extent of federal guidance and commitment through the NPM Coordinator in ensuring that ‘sub-NPMs’ possess ‘functional independence’. Yet, for all that, as the AHRC Interim Report has stated in the Preface: ‘OPCAT has the potential to be the single most positive step in a generation to improve human rights protection of people who are detained’”. (17)

For the author the challenges currently facing engaged human rights actors in ensuring that the OPCAT is implemented effectively in the country are several. After all, what would be the point in ratifying the instrument only to execute it poorly in practice?

Canada, no doubt, will face similar trials and tribulations, especially if it – like Australia – designates a panoply of existing human rights/ombudsperson-type bodies as its NPM, as forecast (rightly or wrongly) on this website. The OPCAT-related challenges which should be met in practice in Australia are outlined in the article, as follows:

  • The designation of monitoring entities in a devolved NPM structure which meet the OPCAT criteria, especially in terms of functional independence;
  • The implementation of the OPCAT progressively without overloading the new structures in a manner which ensures the process is ‘progressive, not static’, particularly in terms of the scope of OPCAT Article 4 coverage;
  • The development of a reliable and realistic criteria of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment to guide NPM activities;
  • The structuring of civil society into the national-level OPCAT system, more so in view of the prominent and crucial role played by the third sector in achieving ratification;
  • And ensuring adequate funding and resources.
challenge ahead
Prisons by -JvL- (2012).

The advantages of successfully tackling the above challenges are both domestic and international in scope and, according to the author, might assume the form of leadership in relation to the promotion of the OPCAT in the Pacific region, where OPCAT ratification remains relatively low. The author tempers this prospect with the following assertion:

“However, the first task is to create strong structures, standards and values within the Australian federation. In that regard, the 2002-2017 history suggests that some significant attitudinal and political hurdles have yet to be overcome.” (17)

At some point in the future Canada will undoubtedly contend with several of these same issues, which are familiar challenges faced by other states currently putting in place NPMs as well as by NPMs operating in practice.

In an in-depth paper published earlier this year the Canada OPCAT Project examined some of these common challenges which frequently beset NPMs in practice. The paper argued that Canada should overcome these hurdles if it is to institute an efficiently functioning NPM. In this wider context Richard Harding’s detailed and highly useful analysis of the current Australian OPCAT implementation process is a timely reminder of the task ahead here in North America.   


Richard Harding, Australia’s circuitous path towards the ratification of the OPCAT, 2002-2017: the challenges of implementation, Australian Journal of Human Rights 2019, published online 2 May 2019. Readers can obtain a copy via Shibboleth or OpenAthens here.

Several other OPCAT themed articles in the current Special Issue on the OPCAT have been highlighted in these pages, including on the role of civil society vis-à-vis the instrument, monitoring immigration and psychiatric detention, NPM regularity of visits and the operation of New Zealand’s NPM.

Read the current issue of the ICPA’s Network on External Prison Oversight and Human Rights with its Australian OPCAT focus.

Read more about the challenges which frequently beset NPMs in practice.

Posted by mp in Australia, NPMs, OPCAT, Ratification

Academic News & Views: Civil Society & the OPCAT

It has for several years been recognized that civil society has an invaluable role to play in relation to the OPCAT, including its promotion and implementation. At the highest international level, for example, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture stated as long ago as 2010 that a country’s NPM “… should be identified by an open, transparent and inclusive process which involves a wide range of stakeholders, including civil society.” It has since elaborated on this position.

In a bang-up-to-date May 2019 article titled Involving civil society in preventing ill-treatment in detention: maximising OPCAT’s opportunity for Australia, Rebecca Minty explores the role of the third section both in relation to promoting the ratification of instrument as well as to its implementation in practice. The lessons for Canada are unquestionably several, more so regarding the potential role of civil society in promoting the OPCAT as an instrument at the domestic level.

OPCAT campaign images
‘Ratify OPCAT’ campaign image by the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.

Rebecca Minty’s excellent new paper appears among the current series of articles which comprise the Australian Journal of Human Rights’ Special Issue on the OPCAT, previously highlighted on this website.

In the article the author skilfully draws on the existing academic literature as well as international practice vis-à-vis civil society’s role and the OPCAT, hinging her discussion on Australia’s on-going attempts to institute an NPM (resulting from its December 2017 ratification of the OPCAT). In doing so, she advances at the outset of the paper a very informative account of the role of Australian civil society with respect to the promotion of the OPCAT in the country, noting:

“Prior to ratification, Australian civil society and the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) had been calling for OPCAT ratification for a decade, in a range of advocacy settings. Internationally, CSOs made statements to the UN Human Rights Council as part of the Universal Periodic Review and recommended OPCAT ratification in alternative reports to the UN treaty bodies, including the Committee Against Torture.” (3)

Canadian civil society organizations have placed similar recommendations before the UN human rights machinery, spanning a period of many years. The November 2018 examination of Canada by the UN Committee against Torture and the presentation of a dozen or so shadow-reports is an illustrative, more recent case in point. Previously, different Canadian actors had also done so with regard to the UN Human Rights Committee and UN Human Rights Council.

Campaign Images
‘Ratify OPCAT’ campaign image.

Where the Australian advocacy context has been different to the Canadian landscape lies in Rebecca Minty’s next point, namely the establishment in 2015 of the Australian OPCAT Network (AON), an informal grouping of academics, non-government organizations and interested individuals. According to the author, the AON:

“… was formed to raise awareness about the benefits of OPCAT and advocate for its ratification. The AON wrote joint advocacy letters and submissions, conducted national teleconferences to share information, and organised symposiums and seminars on OPCAT. Various CSOs provided submissions to national inquiries and consultations, including the National Children’s Commissioner’s 2016 Children’s Rights Report and the Federal Human Rights Commissioner’s 2017 OPCAT consultation.”(3)  

The progressive, open and inclusive nature of Australia’s OPCAT consultation process has previously been commented on and commended in these pages, despite its limitations in the eyes of some commentators. Nonetheless, Australian civil society clearly made its own luck in this matter by proactively collectively organizing to embrace the task of promoting the instrument.

Could Canadian civil society actors follow the tack of their Australian human rights colleagues? There exists absolutely no compelling reason why not – providing sufficient interest and will exists to do so.

Domestic drivers

Interestingly, however, in the view of Rebecca Minty domestic circumstances also played in civil society’s favour when promoting the merits of the instrument. More specifically, two noteworthy events preceded the ratification of the OPCAT which provided an opportunity for Australian civil society to engage in more targeted and strategic advocacy.

These events included Australia’s candidacy for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in 2018-2020 which resulted in an OPCAT ratification pledge, as well as the appalling Don Dale Detention Centre scandal which made for damaging international news headlines. It was therefore not by accident that the images of abuse at the Don Dale detention facility in the Northern Territory were utilized as part of national-level OPCAT campaign. In this latter regard Rebecca Minty commented:

“The release of shocking footage in 2016 of ill-treatment of young people in Don Dale Detention Centre in the Northern Territory, including the use of tear gas and spits hoods, was cited as an example of the need for more comprehensive oversight of closed environments, specifically OPCAT-style monitoring. Australia was elected to the Human Rights Council in October 2017, and OPCAT ratification followed two months later, with Australia making a declaration under Art 24 to delay the obligation to establish or designate its NPM for three years.” (3)

OPCAT Campaign Images
‘Ratify OPCAT’ campaign image.

From the above, various relevant lessons can be drawn for the Canadian context, not least the utmost importance of strong civil society cooperation. Moreover, while one would never wish for a national prison scandal to be the central driver for OPCAT ratification in Canada, domestic penal controversies have sadly been the forces to engender long-overdue change in decades gone by.

Wider OPCAT lessons for civil society involvement

While the OPCAT promotional dimension of Rebecca Minty’s article may be highly relevant for the Canadian context, readers should not lose sight of its wider lessons. More generally, the overall thrust of the piece is very valuable in that it sets out in detail how Australian civil society actors are engaging with the fundamental question of how to put in place an NPM.

Furthermore, the writer also casts her gaze more widely, illustrating through various international examples how civil society in different national contexts is engaging with the OPCAT. Such engagement involves both formal and informal participation in NPM-related activities from undertaking actual monitoring to playing a vital NPM watchdog role.

A very useful selection of country examples are highlighted under these different categories from national contexts as diverse as Austria, Denmark, New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, and the United Kingdom. In a nutshell, the article gives us a great deal to reflect on regarding the potential involvement of civil society in the wider OPCAT framework.

Campaign images
‘Ratify OPCAT’ campaign image.

In the final part of her article Rebecca Minty looks ahead, mapping the challenges and opportunities for effective civil society engagement with OPCAT in Australia. Such challenges and opportunities include the raising of awareness amongst civil society groups about OPCAT and its preventive approach, their role in the designation process of the future NPM, and the all-important process of building an OPCAT system from the ground up in the country. The author concludes on a positive note, namely:

“There is a range of potential roles that civil society can play in relation to OPCAT implementation in Australia, including formal or informal partnerships with NPMs, or a watchdog role. Case studies from other OPCAT State Parties provide a sound basis for Australia to draw from and develop its own innovative approaches to preventing ill treatment. However, to fully realise this potential, further work is needed across all Australian jurisdictions to raise awareness amongst detaining authorities, potential NPMs and within civil society itself about civil society’s value add. As part of an expanding global framework, there is cause for optimism that the gathering momentum for prevention in Australia will continue to grow.” (18)

It can only be hoped that Canadian civil society actors can succeed in emulating some of these same OPCAT practices at the national level.

Thanks for reading.


Many thanks to Steven Caruana for his generosity in relation to this post.

The above article was published in the current issue of the Australian Journal of Human Rights in May 2019. The article can be accessed free-of-charge here.

Read an overview of other articles in the Special Issue on the OPCAT of the Australian Journal of Human Rights, including on immigration detention and the OPCAT and on the New Zealand NPM.

Posted by mp in Australia, Civil society, NPMs, OPCAT, UN Subcommittee

Academic News & Views: Twelve Years On – Reflections on New Zealand’s NPM

Some twelve years into its existence New Zealand barrister and High Court solicitor Michael White has offered some fascinatingly detailed insights into the operation of the country’s NPM.

Frequent visitors to this website will recall that New Zealand’s multi-body NPM is no stranger to these pages. Comprising some five different specialized bodies with the New Zealand Human Rights Commission executing the overall coordination role, the NPM’s operation has not been entirely without issue.

In an article titled ‘The role and scope of OPCAT in protecting those deprived of liberty: a critical analysis of the New Zealand experience’ author Michael White advances a balanced account of the functioning in practice of the mechanism. The academic piece appears in the Australian Journal of Human Rights’ tremendous Special Issue on the OPCAT, several articles from which have been showcased in these pages in recent weeks.

The focus on the New Zealand NPM is of particular interest to these pages, as Canada is also likely to adopt a multi-body structure as its future NPM.

Twelve years
Christchurch Police Car in The Sq. by NCSphotography (2010).

To briefly recap, the New Zealand NPM comprises five different specialized bodies, including: New Zealand Human Rights Commission; Office of the Ombudsman; Independent Police Conduct Authority; Office of the Children’s Commissioner; and the Inspector of Service Penal Establishments. More detailed information about the detention responsibilities of the different NPM bodies can be found on the Human Rights Commission’s website.

In his article, Michael White casts the operation of the New Zealand NPM for the most part in a positive light, as follows:

“Since 2007, OPCAT in New Zealand has developed and become a strong part of New Zealand’s human rights framework … The impact of OPCAT monitoring on the rights of those deprived of their liberty in New Zealand is significant. For example, positive progress includes upgrades and modifications to facilities; changes to policy and practice; and in a number of instances, identifying and addressing issues or problems relating to the situation of individuals in detention. However, this has not been without challenges.” (2)

In doing so, the author enumerates the various areas where clear gains have been made in terms of improvements. Such advances have included, among other things, the following:

  • The establishment of the NPM in 2007 introduced for the first time the independent monitoring of closed health and disability settings. Through the new NPM mandate independent monitors have been able to scrutinizes practices affecting the rights of persons detained in such locations;
  • Police policies and training have been updated to better identify risks and to prevent deaths in custody;
  • Despite on-going problems regarding their practice (as also highlighted in the article) the use of seclusion and restraint practices are now subject to better management processes;
  • Improvements have been implemented to the way sentencing orders are recorded and monitored, resulting in more timely access to parole hearings;
  • The introduction of systems have been ensured to track the use of force and search procedures;
  • Various improvements have been made to conditions of detention;
  • And there has been a raising of awareness of the situation of vulnerable groups in detention, especially LGBTQI.

As highlighted in a recent post, just as the Norwegian NPM, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, has been a driver of change, the New Zealand mechanism has similarly been a catalyst for betterment.

Twelve years
Australian Journal of Human Rights – image copyright of the AHRC Centre at UNSW Sydney.

Nonetheless, some very tangible challenges exist, of which funding remains a very significant factor. Michael White has underscored this key point:

“While NPMs all have a degree of structural independence, in practice independence can be compromised due to funding arrangements, resource constraints and existing operating measures. These issues will need to be continually reviewed as OPCAT continues to mature in Aotearoa, New Zealand.

The impact of resource constraints should not be underestimated. Monitoring visits in New Zealand are generally carried out by between one and four people. Furthermore, visit teams are not truly pluralistic as envisaged by OPCAT. They do not represent people with lived experience, or the diversity of the population (and more specifically the detained population). Furthermore, at times they lack the specific professional expertise to monitor a wide-ranging ambit of detention settings.” (13)

The author also notes that the regularity of visits undertaken by the NPM has been restricted by existing resources.

Somewhat surprisingly, the NPM does not widely publish the outcome of its activities, which is also rightly deemed to be problematic in the eyes of Michael White. According to this legal expert, until recently the NPM only published an Annual Report and no other reports of its monitoring activities were readily available. In contrast, other NPMs do regularly publish reports above and beyond just an annual document.

Finally, as a further challenge, the scope of OPCAT Article 4 and the legal understanding of deprivation of liberty in New Zealand is more limited than might be the case elsewhere. However, Michael White acknowledges that this discussion is on-going:

“In June 2018, the Minister of Justice gazetted new responsibilities for the Office of the Ombudsman under its OPCAT mandate. The Ombudsman is now responsible for monitoring dementia units in private aged care facilities (as well as court cells). While this is a significant step forward, there are still a wide range of places where people are or may be deprived of their liberty that are not covered by New Zealand’s NPM designations, such as community disability residences, aged care homes and educational facilities.”

This same point also relates to the deprivation of liberty of persons in residential care by dint of their lack of legal capacity. The author underscores the potential role the NPM might play in relation to the New Zealand’s international obligations under the UN CRPD in this same regard.

Based of these twelve-year-long OPCAT reflections the writer advances a list of some nine key elements, which he deems crucial for an effective and OPCAT-compliant framework. These key elements include NPM attributes such as independence, mandate, resourcing, transparency and accountability, collaboration, expertise, and engagement with civil society, among other essential items. If Canada is to institute an effective NPM, all nine elements should be taken heed of by the Canadian authorities.

In summary, the experiences of the New Zealand NPM are there to be drawn on by Canadian actors, more so at a time when OPCAT ratification is said to be under consideration in the country (despite the absence of any public information about progress in this regard). In his highly engaging article Michael White succeeds in great measure in highlighting the gains made by the NPM over the past twelve years as well as the existing challenges facing the New Zealand multi-body mechanism.


Many thanks once again to Steven Caruana for his assistance in relation to this post.

The above article was published in the current issue of the Australian Journal of Human Rights, on 16 April 2019. The article can be accessed free-of-charge here.

Read an overview of other articles in the Special Issue on the OPCAT of the Australian Journal of Human Rights, including on immigration detention and the OPCAT.

Lean more about the operation of the New Zealand NPM.

Visit the New Zealand Human Rights Commission’s website on the OPCAT.

Posted by mp in New Zealand, NPMs, OPCAT