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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

The Importance of Oversight in Combating Corruption and Torture

In his recently published 2019 report the Special Rapporteur on torture, Nils Melzer, examines the relationship between corruption and torture or ill-treatment, outlining the predominant patterns of interaction between the two phenomena as well as their systemic root causes.

The report, which is set to be discussed at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 28 February 2019, offers a raft of recommendations aimed at strengthening the protection against torture and ill-treatment in contexts affected by corruption. 

The central role of external oversight in combating corruption and torture, as highlighted in the report, is anything but accidental. Sunlight – as the old adage goes – has long been known as the best disinfectant, and its important negating impact on the phenomena of corruption as well as torture holds equally true.

The Special Rapporteur on torture writes in the report:

When examining the correlation between corruption and torture or ill-treatment, it is of utmost importance to understand the predominantly structural and systemic nature of both forms of abuse. Contrary to common misperceptions, both corruption and torture or ill-treatment are rarely isolated in a few “bad apples” but, figuratively speaking, tend to extend to “rotten branches” or even “rotten orchards”.
 
For example, in the context of policing, the practice of corruption and of torture or ill-treatment typically goes beyond individual officers and extends to their units or even entire police departments, often exacerbated by collusion at worst or acquiescence at best on the part of the judiciary and open or implicit complacency on the part of policymakers. Overall, the resort by individual officials to corruption or to torture and ill-treatment is more often the result of their professional environment than of their personal character. (§21).   

Corruption and torture report
Nils Melzer, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, UN Human Rights Council 1 March 2017 (copyright UN Geneva/Jean-Marc Ferre).

The positively countering effect of oversight on corruption and torture is underscored in several key recommendations of the report. These include the following important points:

  • States should adopt and/or ratify, without reservations, the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, the Convention against Torture and its Optional Protocol and all other universal and regional treaties and soft law instruments relevant to the prevention of corruption and torture and ill-treatment respectively, and should ensure their comprehensive and effective implementation across national legal and institutional frameworks. (§69)
  • States should establish and maintain accessible, well-resourced and fully independent monitoring, oversight and accountability mechanisms for the prevention of corruption and of torture or ill-treatment including, but not limited to, those foreseen in articles 6 and 36 of the United Nations Convention against Corruption and articles 2 and 16 of the Convention against Torture in conjunction with article 3 of its Optional Protocol. (§72)
  • In addition to officially mandated mechanisms, States should provide a transparent and safe environment enabling and protecting the monitoring, reporting and advocacy activities of civil society organizations, human rights defenders and whistle-blowers and ensure their unhindered access to individual witnesses, victims or their relatives. (§72)
  • While maintaining comprehensive anti-corruption and anti-torture policies and practices, States, monitoring mechanisms and civil society stakeholders should focus their efforts specifically on contexts particularly prone to corruption and torture or ill-treatment… (§73).
  • United Nations agencies and mechanisms such as, most notably, UNODC, OHCHR, the Committee against Torture, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Victims of Torture, as well as the special procedures of the Human Rights Council, including the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, should systematically examine the interaction between corruption and human rights violations, including torture and ill-treatment, in their respective reporting…(§75).

The notable incidence of reference to the OPCAT system of torture prevention strongly suggests that its positive impact extends beyond the phenomena of torture and ill-treatment, addressing some of its wider pernicious societal root causes.


Professor Nils Melzer is scheduled to discuss his report on torture and corruption during an Interactive Dialogue at the 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 28 February 2019. Watch the UN Special Rapporteur on torture’s Interactive Dialogue live on UN Web TV.

Read the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on corruption and torture in English.

See Nils Melzer’s statement to the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee from 15 October 2018.

Explore more of OHCHR’s work on corruption and human rights.

Posted by mp in Corruption, OPCAT, SPT, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture