United Kingdom

Filling In The Canadian OPCAT Blanks

“It will never work”, they said. “There are just too many of them. Never in a million years.

More than just a few detractors muttered: “Eighteen different detention monitoring bodies spread throughout four country jurisdictions. What on earth were they thinking of?!”

Surely, someone in the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Justice was having a proverbial ‘laugh’, it was suggested, when it issued its written ministerial statement to Parliament in early 2009, announcing the formal launch and composition of the then UK’s 18-body NPM? Come on – really?!

As someone who attended the official launch event of the UK NPM at the Ministry of Justice in the heart of Westminster, London in 2009, a certain question mark certainly hovered over the feasibility of the complicated structure of the multi-body mechanism.

Recklessness then further abounded. Several years later, in 2013, the UK National Preventive Mechanism was expanded to a colossal 21 individual bodies. The sheer madness of it?

Or perhaps not.

More than 10-years into its existence, the UK’s multi hydra-structured NPM seems to be functioning reasonably well, if not better, despite its many heads. Moreover, several of its constituent bodies are very often referenced as mechanisms of best detention monitoring/OPCAT practice.

Interested readers can find detailed information about each of the 21 statutory bodies that make up the UK NPM on its website

Moreover, as a whole the entity remains more than self-aware that operational improvements are still there to be made. These include the pressing need to ensure the formal anchoring of the mechanism in law and to secure adequate financing of its Secretariat.

With good reason, the UK NPM has every right to be more than quietly pleased with its first decade of operation, despite some initial naysaying. The report of the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture, following its September 2019 visit to the UK, once published, will no doubt also be closely scrutinized by the mechanism as a potential benchmark for improvement.


From a Canadian perspective, the following, excellent UK NPM infographics are especially interesting. The first depicts which elements of the overall UK NPM have responsibility for monitoring the different types of places of detention in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. While the Canadian reader might not necessarily be familiar with the listed acronyms, they will still be able to determine that a diversity of monitoring entities are in operation in relation to the different detention settings in the four countries.

If one were to devise a similar infographic for Canada, how would it look? How would we fill in the blanks under the different detention settings? Keeping in mind that a complaints-handling ombuds-type body is not the same thing as a proactive, preventive monitoring mechanism and that any entities would need to fully comply with the minimum standards envisaged for an NPM in the OPCAT text, which existing oversight bodies would populate the said Canadian infographic?

If you can, fill in those blanks for yourself. This writer believes that at present there would be more than just a few blanks or gaps in any such analogue Canadian infographic.

The second infographic helpfully breaks down the NPM’s overall composition by country jurisdiction. Mercifully, those troublesome acronyms have been lanced. If we were to do the same for Canada’s 14 jurisdictions, using the OPCAT text criteria for NPMs, how would it appear? Once again, please fill in those blanks.

Would there be jurisdictions without any corresponding OPCAT compliant mechanism at all? Most probably.

In a paper published on this website in 2019, originally submitted as an LL.M dissertation, we tried to do just that. The conclusion reached in the paper was that, if the myriad of existing federal, provincial and territorial ombudsperson offices and human rights commissions were to be designated as the country’s future NPM, many would need to be significantly re-purposed in terms of their mandates, structures, composition and operation. Even then, there would still exist certain types of places of detention in Canada without any NPM coverage, unless new bodies were created.

You may not agree with this conclusion, but a quick scan of the paper would help you determine whether the aforementioned infographic blanks can be easily filled in or not, given the current institutional human rights landscape of Canada.


Even though at present the commitment of the current Canadian administration to ratify the OPCAT appears to have been quietly and conveniently forgotten, if in 10 years’ time we can boast our own eye-catching NPM infographics, then there will be cause for human rights celebration.

Until genuine political interest is reignited in the OPCAT project, Canadian human rights actors will have to look to NPMs in other countries, like the United Kingdom, for further OPCAT inspiration. And to think that commentators once questioned the brazen unorthodoxy of the UK approach to OPCAT implementation?

Originality, it would seem, is not to be underestimated at all.


Find out more about the UK NPM.

Read Ten Years of the UK National Preventive Mechanism: Working together to prevent torture and ill-treatment in detention (2020).

Read the Canada OPCAT Project paper, Instituting an NPM in Canada: Lessons from Global OPCAT Implementation (2019).

Posted by mp in Canada, NPMs, OPCAT, United Kingdom