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

Academic News & Views: An OPCAT Focus on Immigration Detention

As part of the Australian Journal of Human Rights fascinating new Special Issue on the OPCAT, the matter of ensuring adequate coverage of immigration detention has come into sharp focus. In a brand-new article by Madeline Gleeson of the University of New South Wales titled ‘Monitoring places of immigration detention in Australia under OPCAT’, the author focuses on the challenges of making certain that immigration detention is effectively monitored in practice.

The parallels with Canada are illuminating. As has been highlighted in recent Canada OPCAT Project posts, even though Canada’s formal immigration detention estate is small, the Government frequently resorts to the use of provincial prisons for immigration detention purposes. Furthermore, unlike in Australia, there is currently no statutory inspection body for immigration detention in Canada, bar a temporary monitoring agreement with the Canadian Red Cross.     

Madeline Gleeson
Australian Journal of Human Rights – image copyright of the AHRC Centre at UNSW Sydney.

In her thought-provoking article Madeline Gleeson makes the essential point:

“…. while the government immediately claimed it as a ‘significant victory for human rights’ (Bishop and Brandis 2017b), the extent to which ratification of OPCAT will in fact mitigate the risks of torture and ill-treatment in places of detention will depend on how it is implemented. In the context of immigration detention in particular, there are significant challenges and controversies to be overcome if OPCAT is indeed to play the preventive role for which it is intended.”

For Australia these aforementioned challenges and controversies are several. In her article Madeline Gleeson embarks on a broad sweep of what might constitute immigration detention in Australia, including more typical facilities located within the country, but also focusing on less typical accommodation type settings, international transit zones in airports, escorts and transfers, so-called off-shore processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and cloaked-in-secrecy detention at sea.

Madeline Gleeson
Maitland Gaol by OZinOH (2007).

For Canadian readers the author’s detailed discussion points to the wide range of potential immigration detention settings in any given country, itself an extremely informative exercise. All of these settings, she correctly argues, potentially fall within the scope of the OPCAT.   

Madeline Gleeson’s focus on the general features of an NPM also serves as a useful reminder of the wide potential array of functions of an effective NPM. In doing so, she examines two existing oversight bodies responsible for immigration detention in Australia, namely the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

As Australia’s future NPM is likely to comprise a multi-agency body whose work is coordinated by the Commonwealth Ombudsman, the author makes various key recommendations aimed at ensuring its legal and functional independence as well as its efficacy as an institution. This advice merits a detailed reading, especially if, as predicted by this writer, Canada also opts for a multi-body NPM as its future mechanism under the OPCAT.    

As in Canada, Madeline Gleeson also notes that the Australian Red Cross has a long history of visits to immigration detention facilities across Australia through its Immigration Detention Monitoring Program. The writer notes: “The Red Cross’s engagement with the Australian government is confidential, focusing on identifying issues of humanitarian concern and providing advice on how to minimise harm for people in detention.” However, unlike in Australia, Canada currently has no other permanent oversight entity for its main immigration detention settings such as an ombudsperson-type body.

The final section of the author’s paper highlights several outstanding challenges relating to the monitoring of immigration detention in Australia. While these factors are to a certain extent Australia-specific in scope, several of Madeline Gleeson’s observations apply beyond its national borders to other current and future OPCAT States Parties such as Canada. These include that:

  • unfettered access to NPM monitors should be ensured in practice in terms of places, people and information;
  • the monitors should be able to address the root causes of potential abuses which may lie in official state policy (such as punitive immigration approaches);
  • and states should be open to independent scrutiny and criticism of their immigration policies, no matter how unpalatable the truth.

All of these lessons could have resonance in the Canadian context as a state which may one day get around to ratifying the OPCAT.

In a word, Madeline Gleeson has made both a very interesting and highly practical contribution to the Special Issue on the OPCAT, with several important lessons for the Canadian setting. With further articles to come in this excellent series of papers, please stayed tuned to the Canada OPCAT Project dial.  


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

The above article by Madeline Gleeson appears in the current issue of the Australian Journal of Human Rights, published on-line on 17 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.  

Read more about the Canadian Red Cross Immigration Detention Report.

Examine the Concluding observations of the UN Committee against Torture from December 2018 concerning oversight of immigration detention in Canada.

Posted by mp in Australia, Immigration detention, NPMs, OPCAT, Oversight bodies

Making A Difference: Norway’s NPM

Have you ever wondered if NPMs are making a difference in practice? For many of us interested or otherwise engaged in torture prevention the above conundrum is a recurrent question. After all, if the sum total of any preventive work is at best negligible, or even worse, why waste the time and effort?

In its newly published 2018 Annual Report the Norwegian NPM takes a fresh look at this fundamentally important question, devoting a full chapter to gauging impact. Most positively, in four of its past five Annual Reports the NPM has retrospectively cast its eye over the year of activities to document effected change.

Even though Canada and Norway are quite different national contexts, not least in terms of size of geography and population, Norway’s industrious NPM has nonetheless advanced some illuminating insights into how one NPM is making a difference on the ground through its preventive work.

making a difference

As noted in these pages just a few months ago, Norway ratified the OPCAT in 2013 and designated the Parliamentary Ombudsman as the NPM. The NPM has been operating since 2014 and consists of an independent department within the Parliamentary Ombudsman, comprising a team of multi-disciplinary staff. Detailed information about the structure and operation of Norway’s NPM can be found in the 2018 Annual Report.

The Norwegian NPM has described in detail how it is making a difference in practice in chapter 5 of the 2018 report. In these pages it has sketched out the all-important process of follow-up to monitoring visits, as follows:

“After each visit, the NPM publishes a report describing its findings and making recommendations for preventing torture, inhuman and degrading treatment. Much of the preventive work begins after the reports have been published.

We ask all places we visit to provide written feedback on how the recommendations have been followed up within three months of the visit report being available.

The feedback we received throughout the year indicates that the institutions generally followed up the recommendations in a thorough manner. The majority of places have implemented numerous measures that play an important role in reducing the risk of inhuman and degrading treatment …

Certain recommendations require limited effort to follow up, while others are more challenging. This means that the NPM’s follow-up can sometimes continue over a long period, and at other times be concluded relatively quickly.” (49)

The report highlights the measured impact of the Norwegian NPM’s activities vis-a-vis specific thematic areas. These include the following:

  • Documenting the use of force in detention;
  • Preventing the use of coercive measures;
  • Ensuring the right to information can be exercised in practice;
  • Facilitating the participation of detainees in decisions which impact on them;
  • Improving the material conditions of detention;
  • Enhancing injury reporting procedures;
  • And minimizing resort to solitary confinement, isolation and segregation.

It bears noting that in 2018 a sizeable number of these gains were made in child welfare, health care and immigration detention settings. In one instance a child welfare facility was even temporarily closed due to allegations of abusive use of force.

Making a difference

As in Canada, resort to solitary confinement, isolation and segregation by different detaining authorities, including in prisons and health care settings, has been a significant cause for concern for the Norwegian NPM. In late 2018 the NPM also published a separate thematic report on the use of segregation in mental health care institutions, a summary of which is available in English.

In conclusion, the 2018 Annual Report of the Norwegian Parliamentary Ombudsman offers Canadian (and other) readers a very welcome insight into how decisive change can be effected in a range of detention settings and, it should be stressed, over a relatively short period of time. For those persons on the receiving end of such change, the positive impact ought not to be underestimated.


Visit the English version of the Norwegian NPM’s website.

Listen to an interview with the Norwegian NPM Director, Helga Fastrup Ervik, and learn more about the activities of her institution.

Read the current and past Annual Reports of the Norwegian NPM.

Read the summary of the December 2018 report, Segregation in mental health care institutions – risk of inhuman treatment.

Posted by mp in Health care, Norway, NPMs, Places of detention, Prisons, Psychiatric detention, Solitary confinement

COPCAT Shorts – Mistreatment & Violence against Women during Reproductive Health Care and Childbirth

Mistreatment and violence against women during reproductive health care and facility-based child birth is a serious violation of women’s human rights which occurs across all geographical and income-level settings. In a statement published in 2014, the World Health Organization reported that disrespectful and abusive treatment occurs during childbirth in facilities and includes “outright physical abuse, profound humiliation and verbal abuse, coercive or unconsented medical procedures (including sterilization), lack of confidentiality, failure to get fully informed consent, refusal to give pain medication, gross violations of privacy, refusal of admission to health facilities, neglecting women during childbirth to suffer life-threatening, avoidable complications, and detention of women and their newborns in facilities after childbirth due to an inability to pay.”

The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Study on mistreatment and violence against women during reproductive health care with a focus on childbirth, April 2019.


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

The Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Dubravka Šimonović has identified the issue of mistreatment and violence against women during reproductive health care and childbirth as the subject of her next thematic report to be presented at the 74th session of the General Assembly in September 2019.

Canadian readers will vividly recall that the UN Committee against Torture expressed concern about the forced sterilization of Indigenous women and girls during its examination of Canada in November 2018.  

The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women is seeking views on four questions relating to the issue of mistreatment and violence against women during reproductive health care and childbirth. Canadian civil society is kindly invited to have its say on this key issue.

The deadline for submissions is 17 May 2019. Please see below for more information.


Read more about the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women’s new study.

See what the UN Committee against Torture said about the forced sterilization of Indigenous women and girls in Canada in 2018.

Read more about the UN Special Rapporteur on torture’s recently launched consultation on domestic violence.

Posted by mp in Absolute prohibition of torture, Health care, UN Special Rapporteur, UNCAT

The OPCAT – A Stuck Record?

Readers of a certain age with fond memories of buying vinyl LPs and 7” singles at Woolworths, HMV or Tower Records will vividly recall the immense annoyance of the phenomenon known as the ‘stuck record’. You will no doubt remember that highly prized The Smiths or Roxy Music record that stuck and repeatedly jumped mid-song, obstinately refusing to budge and play all the way though, without an emphatic prod of the stylus?

In truth, this same vexation of yore is more than just a little bit like the OPCAT ratification process in Canada. Unless, someone in the room applies some heft to the process, the needle is unlikely to move much further forward, if at all.

Therein lies the rub. If not from the Canadian Government, it is difficult to see where this shunt will come from at the domestic level.

After all, just three or so years ago the then Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stéphane Dion, announced that the OPCAT ‘will no longer be optional for Canada in the future”’.  But what since?

stuck record
Record Player – Robert (2014).

The great paradox, it should be said, is that a wide swathe of the international human rights community believes that Canada should ratify the instrument. It is deemed to be ‘a good thing’. Yet next-to-nothing appears to be happening in practice on the home front to advance the process.

In December 2018 the Canada OPCAT Project met representatives from Global Affairs Canada, the lead government department where the OPCAT file currently sits. The latter reassured this writer that there was movement behind the scenes. Yet without the placement of any such OPCAT related information into the public domain how can we really be certain?

Moreover, despite a pledge made to the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva in November 2018 that domestic civil society and Indigenous communities would be consulted on the domestic ratification process, over the past four-and-a-half months nought has seemingly happened in practice to make good on this assurance.

In contrast to the domestic dragging of feet, international calls on Canada to ratify the OPCAT continue undiminished. Just this past week the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities concluded her 11-day April 2019 mission to Canada with a recommendation that Canada should ratify the OPCAT.

stuck record
Catalina Aguilar Devandas, Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities – UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

In December 2018 the UN Committee against Torture urged that Canada should complete the process and, in so doing, consult with Canada’s third sector. To date, neither recommendation has apparently been implemented domestically.

Just a couple of months earlier, the Canadian Government itself responded to its May 2018 Universal Periodic Review by stating before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that it would consider the ratification of the instrument. During this UPR process some 27 different countries advanced recommendations that Canada should either ratify the OPCAT or consider its ratification.

Finally, upon the conclusion of a mission to Canada in April 2018 the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Dubravka Šimonović, also recommended the ratification of the OPCAT.

All of this in the short space of a year.

Let it also not be forgotten that, as far back ago as 2006, Canada first used the pledge of OPCAT ratification during its candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council, a pledge unfulfilled to the present day, some 13 years later.

So, does the Canadian OPCAT ratification process bring to mind that veritable stuck record in that we are hearing a track that never seems to move forward? Most likely it does.

And quite unlike your favourite Smiths or Roxy Music record of old, the seemingly open-ended OPCAT refrain of the Canadian Government is no longer even remotely interesting or entertaining, some 13 years after it began.


Read more about Canada’s open-ended OPCAT ratification process.

Discover how the OPCAT might be implemented in Canada.

Read why Canada’s Correctional Investigator deems the OPCAT an important human rights instrument for Canada.

Posted by mp in OPCAT, Ratification