United Nations


Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Distr.: General

7 April 2020

Original: English

Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel,

Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Advice of the Subcommittee to States parties and national preventive mechanisms relating to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic *


1.Within the space of a few short weeks, coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has had a profound impact on daily life, with many impositions of severe restrictions upon personal movement and personal freedoms, aimed at enabling the authorities to better combat the pandemic through public health emergency measures.

2.Persons deprived of their liberty comprise a particularly vulnerable group, owing to the nature of the restrictions that are already placed upon them and their limited capacity to take precautionary measures. Within prisons and other detention settings, many of which are severely overcrowded and insanitary, there are also increasingly acute problems.

3.In several countries measures taken to combat the pandemic in places of deprivation of liberty have already led to disturbances both inside and outside of detention facilities and to the loss of life. Against this background, it is essential that State authorities take full account of all the rights of persons deprived of liberty and their families, as well as of all staff and personnel working in detention facilities, including health-care staff, when taking measures to combat the pandemic.

4.Measures taken to help address the risk to detainees and to staff in places of detention should reflect the approaches set out in the present advice, and in particular the principles of “do no harm” and “equivalence of care”. It is also important that there be transparent communication to all persons deprived of liberty, their families and the media concerning the measures being taken and the reasons for them.

5.The prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment cannot be derogated from, even during exceptional circumstances and emergencies that threaten the life of the nation. The Subcommittee has already issued guidance confirming that formal places of quarantine fall within the mandate of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT/OP/9). It inexorably follows that all other places from which persons are prevented from leaving for similar purposes fall within the scope of the mandate of the Optional Protocol and thus within the sphere of oversight of both the Subcommittee and of the national preventive mechanisms established within the framework of the Optional Protocol.

6.Numerous national preventive mechanisms have asked the Subcommittee for further advice regarding their response to this situation. Naturally, as autonomous bodies, national preventive mechanisms are free to determine how best to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic within their respective jurisdictions. The Subcommittee remains available to respond to any specific request for guidance that it may be asked to give. The Subcommittee is aware that a number of valuable statements have already been issued by various global and regional organizations, which it commends to the consideration of States parties and national preventive mechanisms. The purpose of the present advice is also to offer general guidance within the framework of the Optional Protocol for all those responsible for, and undertaking preventive visits to, places of deprivation of liberty.

7.The Subcommittee would emphasize that while 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 Subcommittee considers that national preventive mechanisms 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 national preventive mechanisms 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 that detention systems and those responsible for them now face.

II.Measures to be taken by authorities concerning all places of deprivation of liberty, including detention facilities, immigration detention centres, closed refugee camps, psychiatric hospitals and other medical settings

8.It is axiomatic that the State is responsible for the health care of those whom it holds in custody, and that it has a duty of care to its staff and personnel working in detention facilities, including health-care staff. As set out in rule 24 of the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules), prisoners should enjoy the same standards of health care that are available in the community, and should have access to necessary health-care services free of charge without discrimination on the grounds of their legal status.

9.Given the heightened risk of contagion among those in custodial and other detention settings, the Subcommittee urges all States to:

(a)Conduct urgent assessments to identify those individuals most at risk within the detained populations, taking account of all particular vulnerable groups;

(b)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, taking full account of the non-custodial measures indicated, as provided for in the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures (the Tokyo Rules);

(c)Place particular emphasis on places of detention where occupancy exceeds the official capacity, and where the official capacity is based on a calculation of square metreage per person that does not permit social distancing in accordance with the standard guidance given to the general population as a whole;

(d)Review all cases of pretrial detention in order to determine whether it is strictly necessary in the light of the prevailing public health emergency and to extend the use of bail for all but the most serious of cases;

(e)Review the use of immigration detention centres and closed refugee camps with a view to reducing their populations to the lowest possible level;

(f)Consider that release from detention should be subject to screening in order to ensure that appropriate measures are put in place for those who are either positive for COVID-19 virus or are particularly vulnerable to infection;

(g)Ensure that any restrictions on existing regimes are minimized, proportionate to the nature of the health emergency, and in accordance with law;

(h)Ensure that the existing complaints mechanisms remain functioning and effective;

(i)Respect the minimum requirements for daily outdoor exercise, while also taking account of the measures necessary to tackle the current pandemic;

(j)Ensure that sufficient facilities and supplies are provided free of charge to all who remain in detention, in order to allow detainees the same level of personal hygiene as is to be followed by the population as a whole;

(k)Provide sufficient compensatory alternative methods, where visiting regimes are restricted for health-related reasons, for detainees to maintain contact with families and the outside world, including telephone, Internet and email, video communication and other appropriate electronic means. Such methods of contact should be both facilitated and encouraged, as well as frequent and provided free of charge;

(l)Enable family members or relatives to continue to provide food and other supplies for the detainees, in accordance with local practices and with due respect for necessary protective measures;

(m)Accommodate those who are a greatest risk within the remaining detained populations in ways that reflect that enhanced risk, while fully respecting their rights within the detention setting;

(n)Prevent the use of medical isolation taking the form of disciplinary solitary confinement; medical isolation must be on the basis of an independent medical evaluation, proportionate, limited in time and subject to procedural safeguards;

(o)Provide medical care to detainees who are in need of it, outside of the detention facility, whenever possible;

(p)Ensure that fundamental safeguards against ill-treatment, including the right of access to independent medical advice, the right to legal assistance and the right to ensure that third parties are notified of detention, remain available and operable, restrictions on access notwithstanding;

(q)Ensure that all detainees and staff receive reliable, accurate and up-to-date information concerning all measures being taken, their duration and the reasons for them;

(r)Ensure that appropriate measures are taken to protect the health of staff and personnel working in detention facilities, includinghealth-care staff, and that they are properly equipped and supported while undertaking their duties;

(s)Make available appropriate psychological support to all detainees and staff who are affected by these measures;

(t)Ensure that, if applicable, all the above considerations are taken into account with regard to patients who are involuntarily admitted to psychiatric hospitals.

III.Measures to be taken by authorities in respect of those in official places of quarantine

10.The Subcommittee has already issued advice on the situation of those held in quarantine(CAT/OP/9). To that advice, the Subcommittee would further add that:

(a)Those individuals who are being temporarily held in quarantine are to be treated at all times as free agents, except for the limitations necessarily placed upon them in accordance with the law and on the basis of scientific evidence for quarantine purposes;

(b)Those being temporarily held in quarantine are not to be viewed or treated as if they were detainees;

(c)Quarantine facilities should be of a sufficient size and have sufficient facilities to permit internal freedom of movement and a range of purposive activities;

(d)Communication with families and friends through appropriate means should be encouraged and facilitated;

(e)Since quarantine facilities are a de facto form of deprivation of liberty, all those so held should be able to benefit from the fundamental safeguards against ill-treatment, including information of the reasons for their being quarantined, the right of access to independent medical advice, the right to legal assistance and the right to ensure that third parties are notified of their being in quarantine, in a manner consonant with their status and situation;

(f)All appropriate measures must be taken to ensure that those who are, or have been, in quarantine do not suffer from any form of marginalization or discrimination, including once they have returned to the community;

(g)Appropriate psychological support should be available for those who need it, both during and after their period of quarantine.

IV.Measures to be taken by national preventive mechanisms

11.National preventive mechanisms should continue exercising their visiting mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic;however, the manner in which they do so must take into account the legitimate restrictions currently imposed on social contact. National preventive mechanisms cannot be completely denied access to official places of detention, including places of quarantine, even if temporary restrictions are permissible in accordance with article 14 (2) of the Optional Protocol.

12.The objective of the Optional Protocol, as set out in article 1, is to establish a system of regular visits, whereas the purpose, as set out in the preamble, is the protection of persons deprived of their liberty against torture and other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, this being a non-derogable obligation under international law. In the current context, this suggests that it is incumbent on national preventive mechanisms to devise methods for fulfilling their preventive mandate in relation to places of detention that minimize the need for social contact but that nevertheless offer effective opportunities for preventive engagement.

13.Such measures might include:

(a)Discussing the implementation and operation of the measures outlined in sections II and III above with relevant national authorities;

(b)Increasing the collection and scrutiny of individual and collective data relating to places of detention;

(c)Using electronic forms of communication with those in places of detention;

(d)Establishing national prevention mechanism hotlines within places of detention, and providing secure email access and postal facilities;

(e)Tracking the setting up of new and temporary places of detention;

(f)Enhancing the distribution of information concerning the work of the national preventive mechanism within places of detention, and ensuring there are channels allowing prompt and confidential communication;

(g)Seeking to contact third parties (e.g., families and lawyers) who may be able to provide additional information concerning the situation within places of detention;

(h)Enhancing cooperation with non-governmental organizations and relief organizations working with those deprived of their liberty.


14.It is not possible to accurately predict how long the current pandemic will last, or what its full effects will be. What is clear is that it is already having a profound effect on all members of society and will continue to do so for a considerable time to come. The Subcommittee and national preventive mechanisms must be conscious of the “do no harm” principle as they undertake their work. This may mean that national preventive mechanisms should adapt their working methods to meet the situation caused by the pandemic in order to safeguard the public;staff and personnel working in detention facilities, including health-care staff; detainees; and themselves. The overriding criterion must be that of effectiveness in securing the prevention of ill-treatment of those subject to detaining measures. The parameters of prevention have been widened by the extraordinary measures that States have had to take. It is the responsibility of the Subcommittee and of national preventive mechanisms to respond in imaginative and creative ways to the novel challenges they face in the exercise of their mandates related to the Optional Protocol.