Australia misses another deadline to implement international anti-torture treaty

| 20.01,23. 06:35 AM |

Australia misses another deadline to implement international anti-torture treaty

A guard tower behind a barbed wire topped fence.
Australia was criticised over its human rights record last year.(ABC News: Tristan Hooft)
Australia has missed another deadline to implement an international anti-torture agreement, with the country's three largest states accused of dragging their feet and bickering with the Commonwealth over funding.

It follows stinging criticism of Australia's human rights record last year, after United Nations inspectors were blocked from accessing prisons in New South Wales and Queensland.

A month later, the UN's Committee Against Torture grilled Australian officials about practices in the nation's detention facilities.

Australia signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) in 2009 and ratified the agreement in 2017.

January 20, 2023, was the deadline for all states and territories to have put in place oversight regimes, or national preventive mechanisms (NPM), to monitor human rights protections in police cells, jails, mental health facilities and other places where people were in detention.

But New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland still do not have schemes in line with OPCAT's demands in place.

"They're essentially a preventive mechanism to make sure that torture or other cruel and degrading treatment doesn't take place in any kinds of places of detention that the state's responsible for," Caitlin Reiger, chief executive of the Human Rights Law Centre, said.

"It's another deeply embarrassing moment.

"We voluntarily accept these obligations and we hold our heads up internationally as a good citizen on human rights issues, so it definitely doesn't look good."

She said it was not the first time Australia had missed its deadline for action.

"Australia asked and was granted a three-year extension after it ratified [the agreement] before it had to have all of these processes set up," Ms Reiger said.

"There's been an extra extension of another year, and still the discussions which come down to questions really about resourcing and who's responsible haven't been sorted out."

Ms Reiger said OPCAT covered a range of issues.

"It's any kind of mistreatment or abuse that reaches the level of what the international convention is designed to stop — and that's really any punishment or actions that cause severe mental or physical distress or suffering," she said.

"It could also potentially include the sorts of things that are still common practice in many, many places around Australia, including mandatory strip searching."

Jamie McConnachie, executive officer at the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, argued practices recently subject to recent intense media scrutiny would also be covered.

"We are talking about conditions in detention, and the use of spit hoods and restraint devices, restraint chairs which are often used to intimidate and coerce," she said.

"There have been reports on extreme temperatures in prisons, but we're also talking about access to Medicare."

Ms McConnachie said the matter was of particular concern to Indigenous Australians.

"Aboriginal people are the most over-incarcerated group of people in the world," she said.

"The most recent data, of the 30th of June 2022, recorded that 31 per cent of adults locked up in Australian prisons were actually First Nations people, in spite of First Nations people making up 3 per cent of the population as of June 2021."

A key sticking point for New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland appears to be who will pay for the oversight regimes to be in place.

In a statement, New South Wales Attorney-General Mark Speakman said the state had provided the Commonwealth with a breakdown of anticipated costings.

"The NSW government has consistently indicated that it supports OPCAT in principle, subject to the resolution of ongoing operational (including security) and funding issues with the Commonwealth," a spokesperson said.

The Victorian government echoed those sentiments.

"We and other jurisdictions have been clear that the Commonwealth's ratification of OPCAT imposes additional separate obligations on states and territories, and that a sufficient and ongoing funding commitment from the Commonwealth is essential to deliver on these obligations," a spokesperson said.

Last year, the Victorian parliament passed legislation to allow UN inspectors access to its detention facilities.

Queensland Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman's office said the matter was "subject to discussions with the Commonwealth government which are ongoing".

Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said Australia took its "obligations under OPCAT seriously".

"Significant progress has been made towards OPCAT implementation in Australia, with six out of nine jurisdictions having nominated a national preventive mechanism (NPM)," he said.

(Votes: 0)

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