The Commonwealth Attorney-General, George Brandis, has announced that Australia will ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other mistreatment (OPCAT) by the end of the year. (An edited version of Brandis' speech can be read here.)
For more than six years, the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC) has been persistently urging successive Australian Governments to ratify the international treaty which aims to prevent mistreatment and promote humane conditions in detention by establishing systems for independent monitoring and inspection. The HRLC delivered a hard-hitting statement at the last session of the UN's Human Rights Council - the world's peak human rights body which Australia is currently seeking election to.
HRLC Executive Director, Hugh de Kretser, said ratification would be a critical step towards ensuring that people held behind closed doors in Australia are treated humanely.
“From the mistreatment of children at Don Dale to the death of Ms Dhu in police custody, we’ve seen how things can go tragically wrong. This treaty is all about preventing mistreatment through independent inspection and monitoring. Implemented properly, it will promote safe, well-managed places of detention. It will reduce mistreatment and risks of deaths in custody," said Mr de Kretser.
Wayne Muir, Co-Chair of the National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Legal Services welcomed the announcement as demonstrating an acceptance by governments that accountability in places of detention needed to be improved.
"For far too long Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been over-represented in prisons and youth detention facilities. Having independent monitoring and oversight of detention facilities and police lock-ups is a critical step toward stopping the type of abuse and ill-treatment we have seen at Don Dale and nation-wide, and in preventing Aboriginal deaths in custody," said Mr Muir.
Australia signed OPCAT in 2009. The additional step of ratification will make the treaty binding on Australia. The treaty will apply to all places of detention including prisons, police cells, immigration detention and secure mental health and disability facilities. By ratifying OPCAT, Australia will commit to establishing a ‘national preventative mechanism’ to visit places of detention, make recommendations and report publicly on its findings and views.
“This announcement will have a significant practical impact on protecting the human rights of people who are detained. We need a stronger, more independent system of safeguards around conditions in places of detention and OPCAT will help to deliver this," said Mr de Kretser.
The Commonwealth Ombudsman will be tasked with coordinating inspections and oversight in Australia. The Commonwealth Government will consult with state and territory governments on implementation.
“We congratulate the Australian Government for making this important human rights commitment. It's exactly the kind of commitment Australia should be making to prove its willingness and ability to be a domestic and global human rights leader, especially given Australia is a candidate to sit on the UN Human Rights Council," said Mr de Kretser.