UN Special Rapporteur

UN Disability Expert Urges OPCAT Ratification

In a recently published report the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities has called on Canada to ratify the OPCAT. In doing so, she joins an array of other UN experts and mechanisms to have urged Canada to ratify the instrument in recent years.

Following her April 2019 fact-finding mission to Canada, the UN’s top disability expert urged “… the Government of Canada to ratify the Optional Protocol on the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and to establish a national preventive mechanism.” (please see §79) This key recommendation was made in the report of the visit published on 19 December 2019.

In her report Catalina Devandas-Aguilar expressed concern about the deprivation of liberty and involuntary treatment of persons with disabilities in Canada, a wider issue of concern which was previously verbalized in a 2019 report. The UN disability expert stated:

The Special Rapporteur was informed that the number of involuntary hospitalizations was increasing. Furthermore, a significant number of persons with psychosocial disabilities cannot leave hospital due to the lack of community-based alternatives. The extensive use of seclusion and restraints, including chemical restraints, is also a concern, especially since there is no independent monitoring of mental health facilities. [see §79]

The UN Special Rapporteur further recommended that the government establish independent monitoring mechanisms at the provincial and territorial level for centres for deprivation of liberty, including hospitals and institutions [see §101e].

disability expert
Catalina Devandas-Aguilar, United Nations, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities during A Day For All Event, 3 December 2015 – Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

In Canada’s 14-page response to the UN Special Rapporteur’s report of the mission to Canada dated 24 December 2019, the Canadian Government did not offer any comment or provide additional information on the recommendation that Canada ratify the OPCAT.

In issuing the OPCAT recommendation, the UN disability expert joins the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women who issued this same recommendation after a country visit to Canada in 2018.


Read the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities of her April 2019 mission to Canada.

Read the response of Canada to the report.

Learn more about the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities in English and French.

Visit the UN Special Rapporteur’s Embracing Diversity website, including its section on Canada.

Posted by mp in NPMs, OPCAT, UN Special Rapporteur

Joint Open Letter on Concerns about the Global Increase in Hate Speech

We are alarmed by the recent increase in hateful messages and incitement to discrimination and hatred against migrants, minority groups and various ethnic groups, as well as the defenders of their rights, in numerous countries. Hate speech, both online and offline, has exacerbated societal and racial tensions, inciting attacks with deadly consequences around the world. It has become mainstream in political systems worldwide and threatens democratic values, social stability and peace. Hate-fuelled ideas and advocacy coarsen public discourse and weaken the social fabric of countries.

“We are gravely concerned that leaders, senior government officials, politicians and other prominent figures spread fear among the public against migrants or those seen as “the others”, for their own political gain. The demonization of entire groups of people as dangerous or inferior is not new to human history; it has led to catastrophic tragedies in the past. Around the world, we observe that public figures are attempting to stoke ethnic tensions and violence by spreading hate speech targeting the vulnerable. Such rhetoric aims to dehumanise minority groups and other targeted people, and, in the case of migrants, fosters discriminatory discourse about who “deserves” to be part of a community. Furthermore, hateful calls for the suppression of non-normative sexual orientations and gender identities and a limitation of the human rights of LGBT people limit progress towards the eradication of violence and discrimination against LGBT persons in various countries around the world, and a number of discriminatory legal and policy initiatives have been put forward.”

“The rhetoric of hatred must be countered, as it has real-life consequences. Studies have established a correlation between exposure to hate speech and the number of hate crimes committed. To curb xenophobic attacks on migrants and prevent incitement to discrimination, hatred, hostility and violence against other marginalised groups, we call on public officials and politicians, as well as the media, to assume their collective responsibility to promote societies that are tolerant and inclusive. To achieve this, they must refrain from any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. They should also denounce swiftly those who incite hatred against migrants, minorities, or other vulnerable groups. “

Excerpts from ‘Joint open letter on concerns about the global increase in hate speech‘, signed by 26 United Nations mandate-holders, 23 September 2019.


Read the Joint open letter.

Lire le Lettre ouverte commune sur les inquiétudes suscitées par la multiplication des discours de haine dans le monde.

Has there been a backsliding on human rights? Read what the UN Special Rapporteur on torture has to say.

Read the recent Joint UN Statement on Child Immigration Detention.

Posted by mp in Acts of abuse, Civil society, hate speech, UN Special Rapporteur

UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to Visit Canada?

The devil, as many a good human rights lawyer will tell you, is often to be found in the detail.

At first blush, the recently published Annual Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention conveys to the reader the exceptionally busy comings-and-goings of a typical under-resourced, over-worked UN special procedure. And to think all this heroic human rights work is done for free.

Yet a deeper dive into the above report, which was presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 13 September 2019, reveals that Canada was one of 18 countries which the Working Group requested to visit in the course of 2018. The prospect of such a country visit was floated with the Canadian authorities in a communication dated 11 May 2018.

Barring Freedom by meesh (2012)

So, what happened? When did the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention arrive on our Canadian shores, which detention facilities did it visit, and what were this expert body’s key findings?

After all, Canada has proven to be quite a popular destination for the UN’s special procedures over the past couple of years, with visits undertaken by the UN Special Rapporteurs on the rights of persons with disabilities, violence against women and the right to health, to name just a few.

Alas, paragraph 51 of the Working Group’s 2019 report reveals the following:

On 22 October 2018, the Permanent Mission of Canada stated that the Government is unable to accommodate a visit within the requested time frame, and indicated that it would propose different dates.”

Regrettably, no information is provided in the Working Group’s Annual Report, indicating if Canada has subsequently proposed different dates and/or whether a visit is in the pipeline for late 2019 or 2020.

It was notable that the governments of other countries offered similar apologies in this respect. Guatemala stated that it had other commitments in the area of human rights in 2018, proposing a visit at the end of 2019. The Colombian government stated that, given the electoral period, it would need to identify a more convenient time. Similarly, Indonesia informed the Working Group that it had a number of prior commitments to receive special procedures in 2018 and it would consult the capital on an appropriate time for the visit. Kazakhstan proposed discussing the dates of such a visit at a subsequent time.

Happily, the governments of Australia, Hungary, Qatar and Greece agreed to visits by the Working Group and/or proposed specific dates for such missions to their countries.

Down Under
Light in the Darkness by Drew Douglas (2007).

Regardless, a visit to Canada by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention would still be opportune. After all, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture is not going to visit the country anytime soon!

Canadian readers with somewhat more elephantine memories may recall that the expert body previously visited Canada in June 2005. The related report called for change in several different spheres, as follows:

On the basis of its findings, the Working Group makes recommendations to the Government in the areas of the overrepresentation of Aboriginals in the prisons, the excessive use of pretrial detention with regard to accused belonging to vulnerable social groups, and unmet needs for legal aid. As far as detention under immigration law is concerned, the Working Group recommends some changes to law and/or policy. Finally, the Working Group recommends that terrorism suspects be detained in the criminal process, with the attached safeguards, and not under immigration laws.” (page 3)

Unquestionably, several of the above concerns from 2005 still hold true in 2019. For example, Penal Reform International’s flagship report, Global Prison Trends 2019, revealed a fairly damning picture of the continuing high incarceration rates of Indigenous men and women in the country’s prisons, as featured in these pages. The UN Committee against Torture voiced various criticisms less than a year ago during its examination of Canada in Geneva in November 2018, including in relation to immigration detention as well as resort to security certificates.

All of which makes one wonder even more whether an alternative date has as yet been proposed by the Canadian authorities and whether a visit to Canada by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention can be expected anytime soon?

For the answers to these questions, dear readers, stay tuned to the Canada OPCAT Project.


Read the Report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention report to the UN Human Rights Council (UN Doc. A/HRC/42/39, 16 July 2019).

Read the report of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s mission to Canada in 2005 (UN Doc. E/CN.4/2006/7/Add.2, 5 December 2005).

Visit the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention’s homepage.

Posted by mp in Places of detention, UN Special Rapporteur, Working Group on Arbitrary Detention

New Reports – Women Deprived of Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top UN Disability Expert Urges OPCAT Ratification & End to Disability Based Deprivation of Liberty

A leading United Nations disability expert concluded an 11-day mission to Canada on Friday by urging the country to ratify the OPCAT in a broader focused, critical End of Mission Statement. In the same document the UN expert expressed concern about the over-representation of persons with disabilities in adult and youth prisons and their deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability in healthcare settings.

The Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas Aguilar, wound up her extended mission to Canada in the nation’s capital, Ottawa, on 12 April 2019, having visited cities and communities in Ontario, Québec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

disability expert
Catalina Devandas Aguilar, United Nations, Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities during A Day For All, Event. 3 December 2015. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré

In the statement the UN disability expert highlighted an array of concerns, including vis-à-vis Canada’s legal and policy framework. In this connection she urged Canada to ratify the OPCAT as well as other key international human rights instruments.

In relation to the wider issue of deprivation of liberty Catalina Devandas Aguilar advanced various concerns, not least concerning prisons. She stated:

“I am very concerned about the overrepresentation of persons with disabilities, particularly those belonging to indigenous or other minority communities, in both prisons and the juvenile justice system. I have also received alarming information that persons with psychosocial disabilities are diverted to mental health courts for minor offences where they are subjected to higher penalties and stricter regimes.”

More generally, the UN Special Rapporteur expressed disquiet about deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability in Canada.

In January 2019 the UN disability expert issued a report, ‘Rights of persons with disabilities’, which underscored the widespread deprivation of liberty of persons on the basis of impairment:

“The deprivation of liberty on the basis of impairment is a human rights violation on a massive scale. Persons with disabilities are systematically placed into institutions and psychiatric facilities, or detained at home and other community settings, based on the existence or presumption of having an impairment. They are also overrepresented in traditional places of deprivation of liberty, such as prisons, immigration detention centres, juvenile detention facilities and children’s residential institutions. In all these settings, they are exposed to additional human rights violations, such as forced treatment, seclusion and restraints.” (§85)

Disability expert
Abandoned psychiatric institution by Michael Hummel (2009).

The UN disability expert witnessed glimpses of this depressing global reality during her mission to Canada, voicing the following concerns:

“Provincial and territorial legislation across Canada provides for the involuntary hospitalization and treatment of persons with psychosocial disabilities, in contradiction to article 14 and 25 of the CRPD. For example, the Mental Health Act of British Columbia contains very broad criteria for involuntary admissions and, once detained, a person can be forcibly treated without their free and informed consent, including forced medication and electroconvulsive therapy.”

As highlighted on this website a few weeks ago, a critical report by the Office of the Ombudsperson of British Columbia cast a long, dark shadow over the efficacy of fundamental detention safeguards in the province’s mental health institutions. In a word, they have been mostly ignored in practice.

The UN expert’s End of Mission Statement continues:

“I have been informed that the rates of involuntary admissions and community treatment orders are increasing across Canada. Similarly, the number of inpatient beds in psychiatric hospitals, particularly in forensic units, is also increasing. In addition, different interlocutors told me that there is a significant number of persons with psychosocial disabilities who no longer need to be in the hospital but cannot leave due to the lack of community-based alternatives.”

“I urge the provincial and territorial governments to transform their mental health systems to ensure a rights-based approach and well-funded community-based responses, ensuring that all health care interventions are provided on the basis of free and informed consent.

“I have also noticed that there is a lack of independent monitoring of mental health facilities and institutions. I would like to recommend the provincial and territorial governments to establish independent monitoring mechanisms for centers of deprivation of liberty, including hospitals and institutions.”

Several of the above concerns regarding the deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability and use of coercion were also underscored by the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to health during a November 2018 mission to Canada.

In a report issued earlier this year the Canada OPCAT Project also highlighted the lack of independent oversight of such institutions, a point echoed by the UN Committee against Torture during its November 2018 examination of Canada.

Whether Canada will act on these collective concerns, including by ratifying the OPCAT, remains to be seen. Regrettably, there is little to suggest that OPCAT ratification is a political priority for the Canadian Government at the present moment, despite its past assertions to the contrary.  

On a slightly more positive note the UN Special Rapporteur concluded her End of Mission Statement by emphasizing the following:

“As a highly-developed nation, Canada still lags behind in the implementation of its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. There are significant shortcomings in the way the federal, provincial and territorial governments of Canada respect, protect and fulfill the rights of persons with disabilities. Notwithstanding, the country has the potential to undertake a major transformation and fully embrace the human rights based approach to disability introduced by the Convention. The various pilot initiatives and good practices in place could, if adequately scaled up, promote systemic change for persons with disabilities in Canada.”  

The UN Special Rapporteur’s full report on her visit to Canada is scheduled to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in March 2020.

Finally, Canadian civil society actors may also wish to take note that, in August/September 2019, the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities will draft the List of Issues Prior to Report in relation to Canada and its second periodic review. This moment will be a timely opportunity for Canadian civil society to indicate to the UN Committee the key issues to which Canada should be responding in its subsequent report. The Canada OPCAT Project will keep readers posted of any developments in this respect.


Read the End of Mission Statement.

Read the UN Special rapporteur report focused on ending deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability. Lire le rapport en français.

An alternative version of the report designed for wider distribution is also available.

Explore the Special Rapporteur’s dedicated website.

Visit the related OHCHR website on Catalina Devandas Aguilar’s work.

Posted by mp in Health care, OPCAT, Places of detention, Prisons, Psychiatric detention, UN Special Rapporteur, UNCRPD

Ending Deprivation of Liberty on the Basis of Disability – New Publication

The deprivation of liberty on the basis of impairment is a human rights violation on a massive scale. Persons with disabilities are systematically placed into institutions and psychiatric facilities, or detained at home and other community settings, based on the existence or presumption of having an impairment. They are also overrepresented in traditional places of deprivation of liberty, such as prisons, immigration detention centres, juvenile detention facilities and children’s residential institutions. In all these settings, they are exposed to additional human rights violations, such as forced treatment, seclusion and restraints.

Rights of persons with disabilities – Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Catalina Devandas Aguilar (UN Doc. A/HRC/40/54, 11 January 2019) §85.

Ending deprivation

The Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities is set to visit Canada from 2 to 11 April 2019. OHCHR has issued a call for written submissions in relation to this visit, more information about which can be found here in English.


The Special Rapporteur’s brand-new report discusses the underlying causes of disability-specific forms of deprivation of liberty, contrasting this bleak reality with the right to liberty and security of persons with disabilities as underpinned by international human rights law. The document underlines the following key point:

The universal nature of human rights means that the right to liberty and security cannot be denied on the basis of prohibited grounds, such as race, sex, age, disability, religion, national, ethnic, indigenous or social origin, or other status. Such deprivations of liberty are discriminatory and, thus, unlawful and arbitrary. However, for too long deprivation of liberty on the basis of actual or perceived impairment has been widely justified. (§41)

The Special Rapporteur rightly argues that the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities represents a milestone in the recognition of the right to liberty of persons with disabilities, especially its all-important Article 14. This latter article stresses that persons with disabilities must enjoy the right to personal liberty on an equal basis with others and cannot be deprived of their liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily (§43).

In her report the Special Rapporteur scopes out various key measures aimed at ending deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability. These include:

  • Law reform;
  • Deinstitutionalization;
  • Ending coercion in mental health;
  • Access to justice;
  • Community support;
  • Participation;
  • Capacity-building and awareness-raising;
  • And resource mobilization.

Read the UN Special rapporteur report focused on ending deprivation of liberty on the basis of disability. Lire le rapport en français.

An alternative version of the report designed for wider distribution is also available.

Explore the Special Rapporteur’s dedicated website.

Visit the related OHCHR website on Catalina Devandas Aguilar’s work.

Read about the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities in French and English.

Explore related materials under Other Resources.

Posted by mp in Places of detention, UN Special Rapporteur, UNCRPD

COPCAT Shorts: Risk of Backsliding on Torture

Today, not only is the world still plagued by torture, but we are at risk of backsliding on what I consider to be one of the most important achievements in human history: the universal recognition of the absolute, non-derogable and peremptory prohibition of torture and ill-treatment under the same compelling terms as the prohibitions of slavery and of genocide.

Today, all of us bear the historical responsibility to address these challenges and deliver on the promise made by the Universal Declaration of human dignity for all members of the human family, everywhere, at all times and in all circumstances.

Backsliding on torture, Nils Melzer

Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture (copyright UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré).

Nils Melzer, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Statement to the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly Third Committee, New York, 15 October 2018.

Read the full statement here.

 

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