The Australian Human Rights Commission is urging all Australian state and territory governments to fully commit to implementing an important human rights framework for people held in detention settings following the suspension of a tour of Australia by United Nations inspectors.
A delegation from the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (UN SPT) has been in Australia since last week to support our federal, state and territory governments to meet a 20 January 2023 deadline to implement the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). The Protocol was ratified by Australia in 2017.
As part of their evaluation process, the delegation had foreshadowed making unannounced inspections of detention facilities across the country. However, last night the UN SPT announced in a blunt assessment that it was suspending the visit due to obstructions of its OPCAT inspection mandate, particularly noting the lack of co-operation by the governments of NSW and Queensland.
The delegation may decide to resume its inspection in the future if it receives assurances from the Commonwealth as well as all state and territory governments of unfettered access to all detention facilities. The only countries where inspections have previously been suspended or terminated are Azerbaijan (suspended in 2014), Ukraine (suspended in 2016) and Rwanda (suspended in 2017 and terminated in 2018).
In response, the Commission’s President and Human Rights Commissioner are calling on Attorneys-General from across the country to urgently meet to reaffirm Australia’s commitment to OPCAT and to outline immediate and tangible steps for ensuring Australia complies with its OPCAT obligations.
President Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher AM said, “This is a very regrettable situation for Australia, both in terms of Australia’s international standing and the responsibility of Australian authorities to protect people which they place in held environments.
“OPCAT is designed to protect the rights, health and safety of people experiencing any kind of detention. This includes people in prisons, juvenile detention centres, immigration detention centres, hospitals, mental health facilities, aged care facilities and facilities for people with disability.
“By blocking access to facilities, the NSW and Queensland governments have raised questions about why access is being denied and if the rights, health and safety of people being detained in these facilities are at risk.”
Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay said, “The decisions taken by the NSW and Queensland government are perplexing, especially as the Commonwealth and all other state and territory governments are providing unfettered access. The aim of the UN delegation is to encourage and support our federal, state and territory governments through constructive engagement, not to shame them or tell them what to do.
“If we don’t meet our obligations, the UN may consider placing Australia on its Article 17 non-compliance list, a collection of countries with significant human rights concerns. This will be a major issue for our international standing, given that ratification of OPCAT by us was part of our candidacy for a place on the UN Human Rights Council, and that Australia positions itself as a leading advocate for a rules-based international system.
“An Australian delegation will also be appearing before the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva next month where they will no doubt be asked to explain Australia’s non-compliance. Between now and then I look forward to all governments working together to welcome back the UN SPT inspection team, meet our obligations and improve how we protect the safety and dignity of people detained in all relevant Australian settings.”
The Commission recently released a new report outlining the process for governments across Australia to meet the looming deadline for OPCAT compliance. The Road Map to OPCAT Compliance is available on the Commission’s website: https://humanrights.gov.au/our-work/rights-and-freedoms/projects/opcat-optional-protocol-convention-against-torture
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