“Commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention” 28 November 2016

Room XXIV of the Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile”

(Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 9)

I. Background

All countries are confronted by the practice of arbitrary detention. It knows no boundaries, and thousands of persons are subjected to arbitrary detention each year:

  • either merely because they have exercised one of their fundamental rights guaranteed under international treaties such as their right to freedom of opinion and expression, their right to freedom of association, the right to leave and enter one’s own country, as proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
  • or because, having been unable to benefit from the fundamental guarantees of the right to a fair trial, they have been imprisoned without an arrest warrant and without being charged or tried by an independent judicial authority, or without access to a lawyer; detainees are sometimes held incommunicado for several months or years, or even indefinitely;
  • or because they remain in detention even though the measure or punishment which has been applied to them has been executed;
  • or, finally, because of the growing and preoccupying practice of administrative detention, notably for those seeking asylum.

Since detention in itself is not a violation of human rights, international law has progressively endeavoured to define the limits beyond which a detention, whether administrative or judicial, would become arbitrary.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has addressed the distributing expansion of such practices since 1985. In 1990, it requested the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to undertake a thorough study on the matter and submit recommendations to it towards the reduction of arbitrary detention. In 1988, the UN General Assembly adopted the Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under any Form of Detention or Imprisonment. Mr. Louis Joinet, an independent expert of the above Sub-Commission, presented a report on the practice of administrative detention which led to the adoption of resolution 1991/42, formally establishing the WGAD.

The WGAD is mandated to receive and verify information from a variety of sources in order to investigate cases of detention imposed arbitrarily or otherwise inconsistently with international human rights standards. 

The mandate of the Working Group was further extended on 15 April 1997, through Resolution 1997/50 to include the issue of the administrative detention of migrants and asylum seekers. The mandate was most recently extended for a further three year period in Human Rights Council resolution 33/30 of 30 September 2016.

II. Objectives  

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is organizing a one-day event to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the establishment of the WGAD. The objectives of the event are:

  • To raise awareness about and take stock of the development and evolution of the WGAD over the past 25 years;
  • To stimulate reflection on contemporary and future challenges and opportunities for the work of the WGAD; and
  • To provide a space for different stakeholders from around the world to share their experiences on their work with the WGAD with a view to collecting good practices.

III. Date and venue

The event will take place on 28 November 2016, at Room XXIV of the Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland.

IV. Modalities

The event will consist of a round table discussion consisting of three panels:

Panel I - Taking stock of the past 25 years
Panel II - Challenges in the context of migration-related detention
Panel III - Lessons learned and the way forward
Each panel will be moderated by a current member of the WGAD. An interactive discussion will take place after each panel, followed by a session on conclusions and recommendations.

V. Participants

Stakeholders, including Member States, national human rights institutions, international organisations, NGOs and civil society representatives are encouraged to participate and contribute to the interactive dialogue. Testimonies of former detainees and their families are particularly welcomed. Interventions should focus on the role and the work of WGAD with concrete suggestions and recommendations on good practices regarding deprivation of liberty as well as on issues presented by panellists.

Participants interested in attending the event can contact the Secretariat for the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on wgad@ohchr.org. It should be noted, however that OHCHR cannot assist with nor fund the travel to Geneva.

English and French interpretation will be available.


Programme of work (PDF)