Time’s up for Australia to implement OPCAT, commissioner says

By Melissa Coade

January 25, 2022

HRC-human rights commission
Australia has not embedded the principles of OPCAT. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

With the deadline for Australia to embed a coordinated protocol that guarantees an independent inspection system for all places of detention, experts say scrutiny of such venues has fallen by the wayside. 

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), the date has passed on an international commitment made by the federal government to embed principles of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).

The government should have embedded the measures of the protocol by 20 January this year, effectively guaranteeing the comprehensive and regular inspections of all places of detention, and prevention of human rights abuses before they occurred. 

In a statement published on the commission website last week, human rights commissioner Lorraine Finlay said that it was time for Australia to establish an independent national preventive mechanism to conduct regular inspections – and to allow UN inspections – of all places of detention. 

“The great utility of OPCAT, which is to shine a light on conditions in detention so that mistreatment or abusive practices can be identified at an early stage or ideally prevented altogether,” Finlay said.

“Although OPCAT does not create any new obligations concerning the minimum standards to be applied in detention, ensuring greater oversight and accountability helps protect basic human rights.”

Since Australia ratified the protocol in 2017, the commissioner noted a number of incidents in state-run facilities that would have otherwise been prevented with a functioning reporting system.

From inadequate hotel accommodation being used to detain asylum seekers, to prisoners in the Pilbara town of Roeburne enduring confinement in cells with no air-conditioning on a 50.5 degree day, the commissioner said it was clear a different model was needed. 

She also highlighted ongoing reports of mistreatment at the Don Dale detention centre in the Northern Territory, and issues with pandemic-related measures in NSW and Victoria, where various bodies such as royal commissions and ombud inquires have since determined that OPCAT measures would have prevented harms.

“Australia has decided to adopt a multiple-body monitoring system, with each state and territory asked to designate their own national preventive mechanism in recognition of the fact that most detention facilities are run by state and territory governments,” Finlay said.

“Some have already done this but others, such as NSW and Victoria, have not.”

The commissioner said that it was clear from state government feedback that additional funding and an overarching national framework for OPCAT implementation was needed. She also criticised both major Australian political parties for their slowness along the OPCAT journey, pointing to an eight-year gap between signing the treaty under the Rudd government and then finally being ratified by the Turnbull government in 2017. 

“Australia then made a declaration under the Treaty to postpone implementation for up to three years,” Finlay said.

“That extended deadline is now upon us, and we are still not ready. This is simply not good enough.”

“Once Australia has ratified an international treaty, we need to keep our word. We have, to date, failed to do this with OPCAT.”


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