#Indigenous

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