COVID-19

Transparency & Accountability for Incarcerated Indigenous Women in Canada

Launched to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November 2020 the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) issued a new report, Minimizing COVID-19-related Risk Among Incarcerated Indigenous Females Through Transparency and Accountability.

Penned by authors Abrar Ali, Chaneesa Ryan, Hollie Sabourin and yours truly the paper, among other things, calls on Canada to finally ratify and effectively implement the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture.

Prison – Drew Duncan (2010).

The paper’s abstract reads as follows:

“Due to the increased risk of COVID-19 in places of detention such as prisons, greater transparency and independent external oversight is required. In Canada, Indigenous women represent over 41% of federally incarcerated women, despite just representing 4% of the total female population. Epidemiological data shows that Indigenous inmates and federally incarcerated women have been disproportionately impacted by the infection. As a result, federally incarcerated Indigenous women are at an elevated risk based on their over-incarceration, gender and ethnicity. NWAC is calling for increased transparency and oversight of places of deprivation of liberty and swift, concrete and meaningful follow-up to Canada’s different national inquiries in order to keep Indigenous women safe from harm.”

The new report also echoes concerns recently expressed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples about the heightened risks faced by Indigenous prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The paper calls for greater transparency and accountability at all levels, institutional and governmental, which is especially compelling during the current COVID-19 pandemic in order to keep Indigenous women safe from harm, reduce their institutional and societal risk, and address entrenched discriminatory practices.

It seeks to address all of these issues, opening with a focus on the national travesty that has resulted from the ‘Indigenization’ of Canada’s federal prison population, so described by the Office of the Correctional Investigator earlier in 2020.

The third section of the paper looks in greater depth at the exercise of independent oversight of prisons during the on-going pandemic, drawing on the international guidance which has emerged on this issue in past months. The on-going failure of Canada to make progress in relation to the ratification of the OPCAT is also discussed.

Feedback on the paper – good or bad – is warmly welcomed.


Read the NWAC report, Minimizing COVID-19-related Risk Among Incarcerated Indigenous Females Through Transparency and Accountability.

See the Office of the Correctional Investigator’s report on the ‘Indigenization’ of the federal prison population.

See the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the heightened risks for Indigenous prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read the entry on Canada in Penal Reform International’s 2019 report, Global Prison Trends.

Posted by mp in Canada, COVID-19, Indigenous people, Oversight bodies, Prisons

Global Responses: COVID-19 Impacts on Immigration Detention in Canada

Few places of deprivation of liberty have escaped the full dull-thudding impact of the current global health crisis against their walls, with immigration detention being no exception. Global responses to the related challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have predictably been extremely mixed.

This past week the International Detention Coalition (IDC) and Humanitarian and Development Research Initiative (HADRI) have published a very timely report throwing a vital spotlight on the issue titled ‘COVID-19 Impacts On Immigration Detention: Global Responses’. As noted in the press-release accompanying the launch of the report:

“Over the past months, immigration detention practices around the world have been changing rapidly as state and civil society actors respond to manage the multiple impacts of COVID-19. In some cases, these changes have been positive, leading to stronger protection of the rights of non-citizens. In others, they have led to the increased marginalisation of and discrimination against non-citizens.” 

IDC/HADRI Global Responses report.

The report also underscores the following essential point:

“COVID-19 does not discriminate, but laws, policies and practices concerning migration governance, immigration detention, and public healthcare shape the vulnerability of migrants and refugees to its spread and effects. The contributions in this joint edited collection highlight both positive and negative developments over the past year that need careful attention – and in some cases, urgent correction – for the health and wellbeing of all.”

The report offers highly readable snapshots of the global responses from 20 different countries – plus the European Union. Setting off with a disturbing insight into Australia’s ‘howling-at-the-moon’ fixation with immigration detention (aptly titled ‘Detention at all costs’), via Japan, which has reconsidered its former policy of indefinite immigration detention, before arriving in the US with its head-in-the-sand approach to the COVID-19 crisis and its severe impact on privately run prisons holding migrants, the report offers some very disparate global responses to the impact of COVID-19.

Fortunately, some states come out of the pandemic looking somewhat better than others, including Canada – albeit not entirely.

Through its pandemic-induced border closure with the US, Canada has drastically restricted its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention, eliciting considerable domestic criticism as a result, including from Amnesty International Canada, Doctors Without Borders, Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers as well as the media. It has been left to UNHCR to make head or tail of asylum procedures in the context of the public health emergency.

In stark contrast, Canada’s response to mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on persons actually held in immigration detention have been reasonably progressive. In the new report Dr. Stephanie Silverman of the Thinking Forward Network has penned the concise two-page entry on Canada. Titled ‘Canada: The Cordon Sanitaire and the Shifting Threats of the COVID-19 Pandemic’, the piece presents an encouraging global response to the current global crisis. The following short excerpt reveals the extent to which the country’s immigration facilities have been emptied during the pandemic:

“On 17 March 2020, CBSA was officially detaining 353 people across its IHCs and in provincial jails. The population of IHC detainees fell quickly to 98 people (25 March) then 64 people (1 April) then 30 people (19 April). As of 19 April, 117 detainees were in provincial jails, corresponding with their categorization as “high-risk” detainees.”

At the time of writing, no more up-to-date statistics were available on the Canadian Border Service Agency website.

The CBSA detains immigrants in three main Immigration Holding Centres (IHCs) in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, but also uses provincial prisons. Currently, such facilities are subject to the independent monitoring of the Canadian Red Cross under an agreement with the CBSA. However, as there has been only very limited public reporting about conditions in such facilities (just one public report from 2017-2018) nothing is currently known about the circumstances in which detained immigrants are being held and, significantly, how the pandemic has impacted on their lives.

Viewed as a whole, author Stephanie Silverman offers a relatively positive assessment of the CBSA approach to decarceration, as follows:

“The Canadian case study shows a willingness to reduce detention and acknowledgement that prison health is public health: COVID-19 endangers not only detainees but also guards and staff, healthcare workers, legal advocates, and other visitors who bring droplets in to and out of the detention facilities.”

I Refuse – Anthony Miranda (taken from page 3 of the report).

The author also poses the very pertinent question whether this experiment will impact on public and government thinking about the acceptability of incarcerating migrants in the first place?

If one considers that immigration detention ought to be used as a last resort, one must also wonder why it takes a global pandemic to rattle prevailing orthodoxies in Canada regarding the actual good of locking up immigrants. Even then, as the IDC/HADRI report aptly illustrates, even this response has yet to be elicited in more than just a few other states, especially in one country not so far away.

Curiously, while certain provincial prison services have also resorted to far-reaching decarceration during the pandemic, the federal prison administration has shown a much greater reluctance to do so, despite initially paying lip-service to the possibility. With a second COVID-19 wave rapidly befalling the country, it remains to be seen whether such an approach will eventually prevail.


Read COVID-19 Impacts On Immigration Detention: Global Responses and the related press-release.

Lean more about IDC and HADRI.

Find out what the UN Committee against Torture had to say about immigration detention in Canada in 2018.

Read the Canadian Red Cross’ monitoring report of CBSA detention facilities for 2017-2018.

Browse past Canada OPCAT Project articles on immigration detention, such as Making Immigration Detention Less Harmful, An Australian OPCAT Focus on Immigration Detention & Global Compact on Migration.

Posted by mp in Canada, COVID-19, Immigration detention, Oversight bodies

Older In Years, Worse Off By Far?

‘Older persons remain chronically invisible despite pandemic spotlight’ concluded the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons in a recent statement.

In marking the International Day of Older Persons on 1 October 2020, the UN Independent Expert Claudia Mahler succinctly captured a lamentable reality far too familiar in far too many countries during the current pandemic, not least Canada:

“Tragically, the COVID-19 pandemic is shining a spotlight on older persons. It has a disproportionate impact on older persons and has magnified existing violations of their rights. Existing inequalities that older persons face in terms of access to health, employment and livelihood are exacerbated. This involuntary focus on older persons should not conceal the fact that they are chronically invisible.”

The full horror of the devastating impact of COVID-19 on Canada’s elderly was all too evident during the first wave of the pandemic, particularly on those seniors living in long term care homes. With a second wave of the pandemic seemingly fast descending upon parts of Canada, collective anxiety for the wellbeing of institutionalized seniors is only amplified.

Graffiti of Old Woman – Cristian Ungureanu (2019).

The increasingly numerous news stories highlighted on this website about outbreaks of COVID-19 in such settings fuel concerns that a tragic replay may be about to unfold in the coming winter months, reminiscent of scenes from earlier in the year. An awful rerun no less, perhaps epitomized at its worst by the thousands of deaths and the images of the Canadian military being drafted into barely-coping care homes in Ontario and Quebec.

Understandably, several class-action lawsuits have since been initiated owing to the apparent failure of such facilities to provide even a modicum of care for residents.


Ineffective oversight

Yet where is the effective independent oversight of such institutionalized settings in Canada?

An article published on this website in May 2020 titled Canada’s Senior Care Home Scandal forcefully advanced the argument for greater independent oversight of such institutions, including through the ratification and implementation of the OPCAT in the country.

Unsurprisingly, the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons has similarly urged adherence to the OPCAT in a report presented to the 75th session of the UN General Assembly just last week.

In an Annual Report titled Impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons UN Expert Claudia Mahler explores the many challenges faced by seniors during the COVID-19 pandemic, recounting its bluntest impact in the following terms:

“The pandemic has had very broad effects on older persons: they have been denied health services; they have been physically and socially isolated; and they have been the victims of ageist attitudes. Despite being such a diverse group, older persons have been labelled as vulnerable and branded as burdens to societies. The pandemic has made very evident the urgent need to combat stigma and age discrimination.” (§26)

Within care home settings isolation has sometimes been the most acute, as the UN Independent Expert has observed:

“At the height of the pandemic, when official monitoring in some care homes was interrupted to focus on controlling the spread of the virus, the prohibition of regular visits from friends and family removed a crucial informal monitoring mechanism and provided an entry point for violence, abuse and neglect.” (§50)


People Walk – Titoy (2009).

Justice for seniors

In the said report, the UN Independent Expert passionately argues that the pandemic brings right to the fore the specific justice needs of older persons, such as addressing the rise in violence, maltreatment and abuse both in institutionalized as well as private care contexts, including the home.

One such justice-related measure advocated by the UN Independent Expert is for the establishment of independent bodies or entities for older persons, as follows:

“It is crucial to establish an independent and impartial entity, procedure or
body, possibly within an existing independent body, with the mandate to examine complaints pertaining to older persons. It is also important to apply the jurisdiction of the independent body, such as an ombudsperson, under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture … and to consider its specific application to guarantee safe care for older persons, including in residences for dementia patients. Rather than creating a completely new institutional body, the establishment of an independent national commissioner on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons within an existing human rights commission or human rights institution to serve as an independent entity for older persons should be considered.”
(§91)

While such bespoke entities for the elderly do exist in certain provinces in Canada, they certainly do not function akin to National Preventive Mechanisms under the OPCAT, clearly mandated to exercise dynamic and energetic independent oversight of an array of closed institutions, including care home facilities.

At the same time, widespread concerns about the efficacy of internal government oversight of care homes has become more pronounced as the pandemic has worsened. The Ontario Ombudsman launched an inquiry into government oversight into long term care homes during the pandemic in June 2020, while Quebec’s Protecteur du citoyen launched its analogue investigation into the crisis in September 2020.

See you at the finish line – Stefan Barna (2016).

In the devastating wake of the pandemic the Royal Society of Canada convened a Working Group on Long Term Care, which published a critical report in July 2020 titled Restoring Trust: COVID-19 and The Future of Long-Term Care. A key finding of the report relates to the need for transparent and arms-length data collection to be used to evaluate the accreditation and regulation of care homes. Furthermore, it was argued that governments must take an evidence-based and balanced approach to mandatory accreditation as well as to the regulation and inspection of such settings.

The Royal Society recommendations may be a few steps short of OPCAT perhaps, but they are, nonetheless, a move in the right direction to ensuring greater scrutiny.


Making a difference?

Yet would the ratification and implementation of the OPCAT have made any significant difference to the tragic outcomes to have beset care homes in Canada? The answer to the question is, admittedly, not back and white.

In July 2020 the Council of Europe’s highly respected detention monitoring body, the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, issued a follow-up statement concerning the measures taken with regard to persons deprived of their liberty and the pandemic. The statement underscored the potentially highly positive impact of independent oversight in the following terms:

“From the CPT’s perspective, the pandemic also hit the hardest in those places of deprivation of liberty where previous recommendations made by the Committee had not been implemented. This relates to the entire spectrum of the CPT’s mandate: from prisons to social care homes, from psychiatric hospitals to immigration detention centres.”

The statement concluded:

“Finally, the CPT wishes to recall the crucial importance for the prevention of ill-treatment of monitoring of detention places by independent national and international human rights bodies. The findings of such bodies can be of great assistance to member States in assessing the practical impact of their policies upon persons deprived of their liberty. Consequently, the Committee welcomes the fact that, in several countries, National Preventive Mechanisms (NPM) and other national monitoring bodies have resumed visits to places of deprivation of liberty, whilst taking precautions to observe the ‘do no harm’ principle, and it hopes that this positive trend will be followed as soon as possible by other relevant bodies across Europe.”

Many of the shortcomings highlighted by the current pandemic were previously well known. Staggeringly, they had just never been acted upon in any systematic way in practice; nor did there exist in many jurisdictions a rugged independent framework of oversight to push for much-needed change.

While not a panacea for all care homes ills, the OPCAT instrument, if well implemented at the domestic level, could offer Canada a framework anchored in international human rights law to ensure eminently more robust oversight of such contexts, including through liaising with other regulatory bodies.

Quite clearly, the status quo patchwork of internal, often haphazardly performing regulatory bodies with responsibility for care settings is no longer an acceptable or operationally viable option in Canada. The OPCAT might just well offer a way forward.


Read the report of the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all
human rights by older persons, Impact of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons (21 July 2020).

Read the accompanying press release, Older persons remain chronically invisible despite pandemic spotlight, says UN expert.

Learn more about the mandate and mandate-holder of the Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons.

Read the July 2020 statement of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture in English and French.

Posted by mp in Canada, COVID-19, OPCAT, Oversight bodies, Senior care homes, UN Special Rapporteur

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

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

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

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

Prison – Benjamin Horn (2018).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tall prison fence – Simon Brass (2007).

The UN Working Group continues:

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

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

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

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

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


Learn more about the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Read its recently published Annual Report 2020.

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

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

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

Posted by mp in Arbitrary detention, Canada, COVID-19, Women prisoners, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

Indigenous Prisoners at Risk during the COVID-19 Pandemic

“Indigenous peoples are commonly overrepresented in prison and other places of detention, placing them at greater risk where States do not fulfil their responsibilities to maintain physical distancing or other control measures” is a key finding of the newly released report of leading United Nations Indigenous rights expert, Francisco Cali-Tzay.

In a virtual presentation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 24-25 September 2020 the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples made repeated reference to the leading-edge report, whose title reflects a major concern of our current troubling times: Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Session of the UN Human Rights Council – United Nations Photo (2011).

If Indigenous Peoples in Canada and elsewhere frequently find themselves in the most difficult of straits at the best of times, then it is no wonder that their struggle is even greater in these wearying in the extreme COVID-19 conditions, including Indigenous prisoners in closed institutions.

The UN Special Rapporteur’s report, which will be formally presented to the UN General Assembly in October 2020, underscores this reality in multiple dimensions of life, not least in relation to Indigenous prisoners:

“Indigenous peoples are commonly overrepresented in prison and other places of detention, placing them at greater risk where States do not fulfil their responsibilities to maintain physical distancing or other control measures. Transparent protocols and culturally adapted protection measures are required, and take on particular importance in places where indigenous peoples comprise a majority or significant portion of inmates. Indigenous peoples also make up a large proportion of migrants and reports indicate that, in some receiving countries, indigenous peoples have been disproportionately exposed to the virus while in administrative detention.” (§30)

45th Session of the Human Rights Council – UN Geneva/Marc Ferré (2020).

“In all situations of deprivation of liberty, States should consider release and alternatives to detention to mitigate the risk of harm within places of detention, including for persons who have committed minor, petty and non-violent offences, those with imminent release dates, those in immigration detention, those detained because of their migration status, people with underlying health conditions and those in pretrial or administrative detention.” (§31)

In Canada this same debate has simmered throughout the COVID-19 pandemic vis-à-vis both Indigenous prisoners and non-Indigenous prisoners alike. Recent papers by Royal Society of Canada experts Rosemary Ricciardelli and Sandra Bucerius as well as Heather Lawson of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives have advanced these concerns better than anyone.

What is more, regulars to the Canada OPCAT Project website will recall that earlier this year Canada’s Correctional Investigator referred to the ‘Indigenization’ of Canada’s federal prison population as a ‘national travesty’. To this very point, Indigenous women now make up 42% of the federal prison population, while comprising just 4% of the national population, an extremely shocking truth.

This past week’s UN Human Rights Council Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur, Francisco Cali-Tzay, shone a torch on the very negative impact of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic across an array of facets of everyday life, including healthcare provision, food security, employment and education.

The UN Special Rapporteur’s new report is due to be formally presented to the UN General Assembly on 12 October 2020. For the time-poor reader, its accompanying bumf describes its overall thrust as follows:

“The Special Rapporteur is concerned that COVID-19 has both highlighted and exacerbated current and ongoing human rights situations faced by many indigenous peoples. This report brings  critical concerns to the attention of the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council for their consideration and action. Indigenous peoples are over-represented among the poor and suffer higher rates of malnutrition, combined with impacts of environmental contamination and in many cases, lack of access to adequate health care services as a consequence, many have reduced immune systems, respiratory conditions and other health conditions, rendering then particularly vulnerable to the spread of disease.

Curfews, lockdowns, quarantine and other imposed isolation measures imposed as a response to the pandemic may cause additional hardships for access to basic economic, cultural and social rights. Increased State security measures imposed during emergency situations as this may also directly impact indigenous communities.

Exceptional times should not exacerbate or justify impunity for violations of indigenous peoples’ rights. Human cultural diversity is a source of innovation for surviving crises such as pandemics; national and international responses to COVID-19 can benefit from indigenous traditional knowledge and practices.

The report presents examples of good practices, of indigenous participation and consultation in implementing solutions and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic that promotes the vision and approaches of indigenous peoples.”

Readers may wish to directly consult the statement or watch the Interactive Dialogue with the UN Special Rapporteur from 24 and 25 September by clicking on the respective links. A list of the very significant number of organizations which contributed to the report’s call for submissions, including several notable Canadian actors, is also available (please scroll down the page).

As the COVID-19 pandemic is showing few signs of quietly abating, and is writ spectacularly large in North America in particular, it can only be hoped that states in the region dive deep into the Special Rapporteur’s new report and draw on its many examples of good practice, including – more to the point – in relation to closed detention settings. After all, this may not be the worst of it.


Read the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’ Report on the impact of COVID-19 on the rights of indigenous peoples and related background information.

Consult the Statement of Francisco Cali-Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the Human Rights Council’s 45th Session.

Find out more about the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur in English and French.

Read what Canada’s Correctional Investigator had to say about the ‘Indigenization’ of Canada’s federal prison population as well as Andreea Lachsz’s research report’s illuminating insights into the ‘Indigenization’ of detention in her native Australia.

Posted by mp in COVID-19, Human Rights Council, Indigenous people, UN Special Rapporteur

‘Canada drags its feet on international convention against torture’

In a rare Canadian in-depth news article on the OPCAT, journalist Lital Khaikin throws a critical spotlight on Canada’s continued failure to ratify the instrument. Launched in Canadian Dimension on 18 September 2020 as the first in a three-part OPCAT article series, Lital Khaikin questions why Canada has singularly failed to move ahead with the OPCAT torture-prevention instrument, despite repeated global pledges and statements to do so.

This failure is all the more worrying at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has hit down hard on multiple closed institutional settings in the country, especially long-term care homes for the elderly.

The overall investigative thrust of three-part series is described by the author in the following terms:

This is the first article in a three-part series on Canada’s historical reluctance to ratify the United Nations’ Optional Protocol with the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). Despite being one of the early champions of this international law that exists to prevent torture in civilian and military detention centres, Canada has still not officially adopted the agreement. The first article examines the lack of transparency and bureaucratic reticence toward OPCAT. The second part examines the circumstances in Canadian detention centres—and other care and medical environments—that urgently call for this greater accountability. The third part examines precedents in Canadian military use of torture alongside Canada’s spotty human rights track record.

The Canadian Dimension series’ broader focus on detention and the need for greater transparency arrives at a crucial time, regrettably more so as the OPCAT project seems to have hit the buffers in Canada. Otherwise put, the repeated international calls for Canada to move ahead with the ratification of the instrument have seemingly fallen on deaf ears.

Solitary -DieselDemon (2010).

In this first article for Canadian Dimension Lital Khaikin interviews leading Canadian human rights advocates, including the current Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, who has long urged Canada to sign and ratify the instrument. Ezat Mossallanejad, Settlement Counsellor and Policy Analyst at the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for Victims of Torture, also weighs into this long overdue discussion, offering several unique and invaluable historical insights.

The Canada OPCAT Project even raises its ugly head at the end of the article with a deliberately pointed comment about the lack of overall transparency, openness and inclusiveness of the national discussion process on OPCAT ratification.

Paradoxically, while Canada’s fourth estate frequently advances scathing commentaries on the on-going elderly care home scandal, under-age migrants held in detention, the shoddy material condition of parts of Canada’s prison estate, the widespread overuse of solitary confinement in detention, and the shocking ‘Indigenization’ of the overall prison population, to name just a few contemporary media concerns, very rarely do Canadian journalists ever join the dots up and make the linkage with the country’s overall weak national patchwork of independent oversight of detention. Journalist Lital Khaikin attempts to do just that in this new series of articles.

In a nutshell, for regulars, and even irregulars to the Canada OPCAT Project website, this article is a must read.


Read ‘Canada drags its feet on international convention against torture’ by Lital Khaikin, published in Canadian Dimension on 18 September 2020.

Read Lital Khaikin’s numerous previous Canadian Dimension articles.

Find out more about Canadian Dimension and consider making a donation to the news forum.

Posted by mp in Canada, COVID-19, OPCAT

Webinar ‘COVID-19 and North American Corrections: Lessons for Australia’

If you missed this now past webinar, you can watch it on demand here.

The related PowerPoint presentations can also be accessed here.

***

Depending upon exactly where you are in the world, set to take place on either 7th or 8th September, this is a webinar you will not want to miss out on! Incurable Australian OPCAT enthusiast Steven Caruana has pulled together yet another first-class panel of speakers, this time to reflect on the critical question of whether there are any key lessons for Australia from how the USA and Canada have responded to the current COVID-19 pandemic in prisons.

The spotlight will first fall on Canada, whose prisons – so far at least – have appeared to have escaped the very worst ravages of the current pandemic. This timely discussion will be led by the current Canadian Correctional Investigator, Ivan Zinger, followed by Ontario Independent Advisor on Corrections, Howard Sapers, and leading Public Health and Preventive Medicine Physician, Fiona Kouyoumdjian.

In stark contrast, as has been widely documented, many prison institutions south of the 49th parallel find themselves in truly dire straits. The current state of affairs in the USA will be explored by leading medical experts, Homer Venters and Brie Williams, and penal reform activist Adnan Khan. Please click on the biographies of the different speakers to find out more about the webinar presenters.

As the webinar host, Thalia Anthony, a penal reform activist and law professor at the University of Technology in Sydney, will pull the discussion tightly together and coax out the most relevant COVID-19-related lessons for prison institutions in Australia.

During these different presentations webinar viewers will learn at first hand about the respective COVID-19 prison situations in Australia, Canada and USA, whether restrictive locked-down regimes have succeeded in protecting prisoners and staff alike, and whether prison decarceration has been an effective solution in countering the worsening pandemic.

You can watch the webinar on Zoom by requesting an invitation from Steven Caruana: steven_caruana1@hotmail.com. Please send requests early, as participation is limited to 400 persons and the seats are sure to fill up quickly!

Viewers in Ottawa/New York can watch the webinar at 7 pm on Monday 7th September 2020.

Viewers in Australia should tune into the webinar at 9 am on Tuesday 8th September (Australian Eastern Standard Time).


In the meantime, why not spend the next week exploring several of the other exciting seminars in the current series? Take a look below:

  • Human Rights and Detention in the time of COVID-19watch here;
  • The Relationship Between Civil Society and the National Preventive Mechanismwatch here;
  • Culturally Appropriate Oversight of Detained Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander People in the Northern Territorywatch here;
  • Implementing OPCAT in Australiawatch here.

Many thanks to Steven Caruana for all of the above information and links.

Posted by mp in COVID-19, Prisons

Reduce Prison Overcrowding, Reduce The Spread of COVID-19

Desperate times require bold thinking and even bolder measures, it has sometimes been argued, and the Copenhagen-based NGO Dignity have being doing just that in recent weeks.

In the run up to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture the NGO, Dignity – Danish Institute Against Torture, has issued yet another top-rate, highly practical publication which tackles head-on the urgent need to reduce prison populations during the on-going pandemic.

This stunningly good new publication, titled Guidance Document on Reducing Overcrowding in Pre-Trial Detention and Prison in the Context of COVID-19 – Increasing the Use of Non-Custodial Measures, has been penned by Dignity’s long-time Legal Director Therese Maria Rytter and Legal Advisor Kalliopi Kambanella, and it arrives at a time when more and more of us are allowing ourselves to believe that perhaps this troublesome COVID-19 will soon be licked? However, are we jumping to a much-wished-for conclusion too soon?

Just this week, leading Canadian academics Rosemary Ricciardelli and Sandra Bucerius published a highly thoughtful, superbly argued article as part of the Royal Society of Canada’s COVID-19 Series, which, among its numerous excellent points, questioned whether the Canadian prison estate might be in for a second COVID-19 wave?

In the opinion piece, titled ‘Canadian prisons in the time of COVID-19: Recommendations for the pandemic and beyond’, which was also featured in the Globe and Mail on 23 June 2020, the authors wrote:

While the spread of COVID-19 has mostly been kept at bay in Canadian prisons (with some institutions having had concerning outbreaks, such as Mission Institution in British Columbia and the Multi-level Federal Training Centre in Quebec), we are not suggesting that fear of contagion has dissipated for staff, prisoners, and those who care for said persons. As Canada prepares for a potential second wave of COVID-19, CSC and the provincial/territorial governments must continue to undertake structured and informed decarceration efforts (i.e. efforts directed at reducing the number of people housed in Canadian prisons). While undoubtable not a simple undertaking, such actions would be in line with recommendations made by the UN and by a working group of the Council for Penological Co-operation (PC-CP) of the Council of Europe (who released a “COVID-19 related statement” in April 2020).

Simply put, for those Canadians who think they may have made it through the worst of it – prison administrators included – then please think again. Fortuitously, in this very same connection, Dignity’s newly launched Guidance Document gives us much to reflect on.

Reduce, reduce, reduce…

The accompanying press-release outlines the publication’s overall purpose:

The world is facing an unprecedented public health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic comes at a time when the global prison population is record high with 11 million prisoners worldwide and with over 124 states reporting prison overcrowding. Globally, the pandemic has exposed and accelerated the detrimental consequences of chronic overcrowding in places of detention.

The pandemic warrants resolute action by states to reduce the prison population as an imperative for preventing an outbreak within the prison and, in turn, within society. Without compromising public safety, states must limit new admissions to prison and accelerate the release of certain categories of prisoners. To this end, states should consider increased use of non-custodial alternatives to detention and imprisonment.

Juvenile Detention Centre – Stuart McAlpine (2011).

Dignity’s two authors explain in 25 or so pages of useful, practical detail how such a reduction in a country’s prison population might be achieved in reality. The publication examines non-custodial measures at three main stages of the criminal justice process, namely (1) the pre-trial stage, (2) trial and sentencing stage, and (3) post-trial stage. In doing so, the authors draw on positive penal practice from across the globe in the context of the current global health emergency.

At the pre-trial stage, for example, non-custodial measures might include home arrest, reporting obligations, restrictions on leaving or entering a specific space without authorization, retention of travel documents, bail or bond, supervision by specific agency, and electronic monitoring. Country examples from India, Jordan and The Netherlands are cited.

At the trial and sentencing stage non-custodial measures might comprise fines, suspended or deferred sentences, probation or judicial supervision, community service, diversion to treatment, restrictions on movement, and electronic monitoring, with brief country examples offered from Thailand, Malaysia, USA and Norway.

Finally, at the post-trial stage non-custodial measures envelop an array of country examples in relation to non-custodial measures. These include parole or early conditional release, temporary release, compassionate release, pardon or amnesty, and electronic monitoring. In this section of the publication there are too many country examples to enumerate in these short pages – so just see for yourself.

Regrettably, Canada is not cited as an example in any of these three stages, despite there having emerged certain positive examples of non-custodial measures being employed at the provincial level, Ontario in particular. Even so, Dignity’s excellent publication warrants a much closer inspection.

And if those home-schooled children and maddeningly annoying bosses of yours have – once again – worn you down to the bone and you are even more time-poor than usual, you can always read the publication’s Executive Summary or overview of non-custodial measures. Busy parents of the world rejoice!

Finally, on a personal note, as we approach yet another International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on 26 June, the Canada OPCAT Project salutes and thanks you for your unflagging commitment to the cause. As our motley collection of posters remind us, a better torture-free world is one day possible.


Read Reducing Overcrowding in Pre-Trial Detention and Prison in the Context of COVID19 (23 June 2020) and the related press release.

Explore Dignity’s Legal Fact-sheets.

Read Rosemary Ricciardelli and Sandra Bucerius’ Royal Society of Canada COVID-19 Series article, ‘Canadian prisons in the time of COVID-19: Recommendations for the pandemic and beyond’.

Explore UNODC’s and the Thailand Institute of Justice’s highly rated Toolkit on Gender-Responsive Non-Custodial Measures.

Posted by mp in COVID-19, Places of detention, Prisons

Public Health Emergencies & Arbitrary Detention

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The statement continued:

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

The Storm Breaks – Tim Sackton (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

Arbitrary Limitations – Marcin Wichary (2008).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Find out more about the work of the WGAD.

Explore the WGAD’s other Deliberations.

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

Posted by mp in Arbitrary detention, COVID-19, OPCAT, Oversight bodies, Places of detention

COVID-19: Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?

This troublesome question of whether to stay or to go is one not just to afflict a famous English punk rock band some four decades ago. Rather, it is one today to rack the human rights hearts and minds of detention oversight mechanisms from all over – in this new, but far less brave COVID-19 world of ours.

Boiled down, the burdensome decision to be reached is whether inspection bodies, OPCAT mechanisms or not, should continue to exercise their core detention visiting function in the wake of the current, seemingly quickly deteriorating global health pandemic? At first blush, the general answer to this quandary, while certainly far from clear, appears to be a somewhat reluctant not – at least not physically.

Wash Your Hands (COVID-19 Self-Protection Advice – William Murphy (2020).

Less than a week ago, the Canadian Correctional Investigator, Dr. Ivan Zinger, marked out the monitoring position of his institution in the following statement issued in English and French:

The Correctional Service of Canada (CSC) has implemented exceptional COVID-19 measures that will affect routines and conditions of confinement in Canada’s federal penitentiaries, including suspension of all visits until further notice.  At this time, though regular and scheduled institutional visits from OCI staff members have also been temporarily suspended and most staff are working remotely from home, as an external independent oversight body the Office of the Correctional Investigator will maintain an essential level of services and operations, including regular situational monitoring… As the situation evolves, the Office will consider making emergency institutional visits on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration directions from health authorities.”

This position appears to strike a crucial balance between doing no harm, keeping a close eye on the current, fast-moving situation, and reserving the ultimate right to knock hard on any institutional door, if needs must. The emerging global practice suggests that the Canadian Correctional Investigator may not be alone in adopting such a stance.

Elsewhere in Canada the situation is less clear. While on one hand, the Ombudsman Ontario is working remotely and liaising with the detaining authorities from afar, the approach of the country’s other provincial and territorial ombuds-type bodies is ambiguous.

Flower Stream – Rennett Stowe (2020).

For the most part, the country’s patchwork system of ombudsperson institutions have issued statements, informing the public that they have closed their doors with a view to limiting face-to-face contact with the masses and/or are working remotely. Unlike, the Office of the Correctional Investigator, however, no detailed information is generally provided about the modalities of any interaction with the detaining authorities over which they have an oversight function.

Ideally, one would hope that a similar approach to the Correctional Investigator has been adopted, but in the absence of specific information this assumption is far from certain. The Office of the Human Rights Commissioner of British Columbia, for example, has simply stated that its employees are working remotely until 30 April 2020.

Similar missives have been posted on the websites of the Le Protecteur du Citoyen Quebec, Alberta Ombudsman, Ombudsman Saskatchewan, Manitoba Ombudsman, Ombud New-Brunswick, Nova Scotia Office of the Ombudsman, and the Office of the Northwest Territories Ombud. Somewhat surprisingly, a small minority of ombuds-institutions currently have no COVID-19 operational-related information on their websites.

Prison Tower – Jobs For Felons Hub (2016).

International practice

Despite putting on hold its own programme of international visits, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) has encouraged National Preventive Mechanisms under the OPCAT to continue to exercise their preventive visits function. In key guidance issued this past week, the SPT stated the following:

“Numerous NPMs have asked the SPT for further advice regarding their response to this situation. Naturally, as autonomous bodies, NPMs are free to determine how best to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic within their respective jurisdictions.” [6]

Even so, the SPT underscored the fundamental importance of conducting visits to all places of deprivation of liberty as broadly defined by the OPCAT:

“The SPT would emphasise that whilst the manner in which preventive visiting is conducted will almost certainly be affected by necessary measures taken in the interests of public health, this does not mean that preventive visiting should cease. On the contrary, the potential exposure to the risk of ill-treatment faced by those in places of detention may be heightened as a consequence of such public health measures taken. The SPT considers that NPMs should continue to undertake visits of a preventive nature, respecting necessary limitations on the manner in which their visits are undertaken. It is particularly important at this time that NPMs ensure that effective measures are taken to reduce the possibility of detainees suffering forms of inhuman and degrading treatment as a result of the very real pressures which detention systems and those responsible for them now face.” [7]

This position has been echoed by other authoritative international bodies, including just last week by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture. The World Health Organization also chimed this same key point in a recent publication, as discussed on this website.

Prison Riot Squad – Jobs For Felons Hub (2016).

National-level developments

At the national level, detention monitoring practice in the light of the spiraling global COVID-19 crisis appears to be more of a mixed picture.

Fairly early on into the crisis, on 16 March 2020, the French NPM, the Le Contrôleur général des lieux de privation de liberté announced its suspension of visits. Similarly, across la Manche, the next day Her Majesty’s Inspector of Prisons in England and Wales Peter Clarke stated that the mechanism had postponed future visits for nearly two-and-a-half months. The published statement read:

Peter Clarke, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, has announced that all scheduled inspection work involving visits to prisons or other places of State detention in England and Wales has been suspended up to the end of May 2020. This will affect around 15 full inspections, independent reviews of progress and visits as part of thematic inspection work. This decision will be kept constantly under review in the light of COVID-19-related developments.”

Not too long afterwards, on 25 March, the Swiss NPM, the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture followed suite in a letter addressed to the prison and health authorities, ostensibly so as not to overburden the prison authorities.

In Scotland, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons for Scotland, Wendy Sinclair-Gieben, also announced a suspension of all such visits. However, in a statement issued on 31 March the Chief Inspector reaffirmed that the institution was committed “… where possible, to undertake a liaison visit to any prison establishment where we believe the urgency to visit outweighs our precautions related to COVID-19.”

The above position was not entirely dissimilar to the stance adopted by the Canadian Correctional Investigator.

COVID-19 notice – Iain Cameron (2020).

These bodies (all of which are part of the UK NPM) are not alone. Dame Anne Owers, the National Chair of the Independent Monitoring Boards, the lay-visitor prison and immigration detention monitoring scheme in England and Wales, issued a statement on 30 March, marking out a similar position:

“Boards will be able to carry out some limited on-site work where it is safe and feasible to do so. However, we have also developed remote methods of providing some independent assurance at a time of heightened concern for prisoners and detainees.”

Staying in Albion for a moment longer, the overall UK NPM Chair, John Wadham, wrote to Secretary of State Robert Buckland the same day stating the following:

Firstly, NPM members are developing risk criteria that allow them to respond to allegations or concerns about potential ill treatment that warrant some kind of visit to be conducted. In most situations, these visits would be carried out by one or two people and follow a much more targeted methodology than normal inspections/monitoring visits. Secondly, NPM members are developing new approaches to remote forms of monitoring. Given the rapidly changing picture across different detention settings and the severity of the measures that are being imposed (restriction of family visits, long periods of isolation, limitations on exercise and association), NPM members are looking into how they can monitor the situation using data from a range of sources, including from detention authorities themselves, via phone lines and correspondence, and from wider stakeholders.”

Just to add further colour to the palette, Katie Kempen, the Chief Executive of the Independent Custody Visiting Association, the organizational entity supporting the lay-person police visiting scheme in the UK (which is also part of the country’s 21-body NPM), stated on 25 March that such visits could continue. Volunteer independent custody visitors deemed high-risk (due to their age or health) would be exempt from such activities. However, she stressed that remote monitoring possibilities were also being considered.

In sum, a range of options seem to be on the table in the United Kingdom.

It bears noting that the Canadian Correctional Investigator and the UK NPM’s use of a range of options (some remote, some not) to monitor closed settings mirror-image the key advice advanced by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture in last week’s guidance document (please see paragraphs 12 and 13).

Quarantine-related powers

As an interesting aside (at least we think so), at least two NPMs have issued statements, stressing that, despite any public emergency measures, they retain the power to access any compulsorily quarantined individuals and/or related detention facilities.

The Public Defender of Georgia issued a statement on 17 March, noting that her office would consider monitoring facilities or persons who had been quarantined, provided that certain conditions were met, such as the safety of the monitoring team and non-interference with healthcare provision were ensured.

Across the border in Armenia, likewise the Human Rights Defender of Armenia reaffirmed in no uncertain terms in a FAQ document published on 27 March that it cannot be prevented from exercising its monitoring activities during the present state of emergency in the country, remarking:

“Restrictions enforced in the declared state of emergency cannot hinder the activity of the Human Rights Defender. The right to apply to Human Rights Defender is of absolute character and is not subject to restriction in state of emergency.”

Whether the two NPMs in question will actively opt to exercise their stated rights to visit quarantined individuals in places of deprivation of liberty remains to be seen – as the situation unfolds.

Prison Fence Barbed Wire – Jobs For Felons Hub (2016).

In conclusion: staying or going?

As for other detention monitoring entities, concrete information about whether such bodies – to quote our favourite English punk rock band – have decided to stay or to go is somewhat scant.

A random scan of the websites of a range of different inspection mechanisms revealed little concrete information in this connection, including those of the Commissioner for Human Rights in Ukraine, Commissioner for Human Rights in Kazakhstan and the Office of the Inspector of Prisons in Ireland, which remains altogether silent on the issue of COVID-19.

At the time of writing, no information about the curtailment of visits had been posted on the respective websites of the Austrian and German NPMs, the Austrian Ombudsman Board and the National Agency for the Prevention of Torture.

In Moldova, the People’s Advocate (comprising an important element of the country’s NPM) has created a section on its website for the purpose of monitoring human rights violations during the present health crisis. A press release issued on 30 March strongly suggested that the mechanism would be handling any such complaints remotely and would be liaising from a distance with the relevant government agencies. While no direct mention was made of the suspension of visits, one might conclude from the above that this has been in fact the case.

With 71 designated NPMs in the world and numerous other detention oversight mechanisms, the reader will appreciate why this – wholly unintended – mini-research project on the part of the Canada OPCAT Project very quickly ran out of steam. And to think, we barely left Europe!

Thankfully help has come to the rescue in the shape of a recent research initiative by the Expert Network on External Prison Oversight and Human Rights. The latter has arrived at a very timely moment.

The Network, which is hosted by the Independent Corrections and Prisons Association and chaired by the Canadian Correctional Investigator, is aiming to compile information about the impact of COVID-19 on the work of detention monitoring bodies, including the measures taken to respond to this crisis as well as any related lessons learned. The findings of the research, to be shared in future newsletters, will be very revealing of how NPMs and other bodies are adapting to the quickly changing COVID-19 circumstances.

The research will thus no doubt shine a brighter light on the pressing question of how such bodies are continuing to exercise their all-important preventive visiting function in the light of the present-day conditions. Better still, there might even be a PhD in all of this for someone one day…

Thanks for your time, dear readers.


Read the latest newsletter of the Expert Network on External Prison Oversight and Human Rights and learn how to contribute to its COVID-19 monitoring-related research.

See the document, Advice of the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture to States Parties and National Preventive Mechanisms relating to the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Read the CPT’s Statement of Principles relating to the treatment of persons deprived of their liberty in the context of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic in EnglishFrench or Russian.

Consult Penal Reform International’s publication, Coronavirus: Healthcare and human rights of people in prison.

Read the WHO publication, Preparedness, prevention and control of COVID-19 in prisons and other places of detention.

Posted by mp in COVID-19, Independent detention monitors, NPMs, OPCAT