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Australia commits to greater oversight of places of detention

Graphic: Prison wall and razor wire

The Australian Human Rights Commission has been leading consultations on implementing the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.

Eight years after signing the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), Australia has become the 86th State Party to ratify the treaty and commit to regular and independent monitoring of its places of detention.

The Australian Government ratified OPCAT on 15 December 2017, after announcing its intention to do so back in February

Ratifying OPCAT requires Australia to create a regime of independent inspections for all places of detention, as well as facilitating periodic monitoring visits by the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture.

This is a major development that provides a practical means to protect the rights of people in detention in Australia.

Australian Human Rights Commission Logo Emeritus Professor Rosalind Croucher, President, Australian Human Rights Commission

Australia's Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow has been leading consultations with civil society organisations on how OPCAT should be implemented.

"We commend the Attorney-General and Australian Government on this crucial milestone. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to protect vulnerable people in detention. And so we must get this right," he said.

"OPCAT offers something new. It doesn't wait for abuse to take place. Instead, it adopts a preventive approach, shining a light on problems before they deteriorate further. It also highlights good practices that other detention facilities can learn from."

Commissioner Santow said to ensure Australia meets its obligations under OPCAT, inspecting and monitoring bodies must be independent and given adequate powers and resources, including unfettered access to all places of detention.

Under OPCAT, Australia is required to establish one or several national preventive mechanisms (NPMs) to monitor those places where people are deprived liberty – such as prisons and police stations, psychiatric institutions and immigration detention facilities – and provide recommendations to the government.

The Australian Government has announced that the Commonwealth Ombudsman will play a coordinating role within the 'NPM network' and that each state and territory will designate their most appropriate torture prevention mechanism(s).

In some states or territories, the mandate of existing institutions will need to be adapted or broadened while, in other jurisdictions, new institutions will have to be created.

The Association for the Prevention of Torture (APT) has noted that Australia's federal system will make implementing a comprehensive national oversight system challenging but not insurmountable.

Date: 20 December 2017

Image credits

  1. Prison wall and razor wire - APF/James Iliffe