UN tells Aus: Sentencing children to life in prison without genuine possibility of parole breaches international law

UN tells Aus: Sentencing children to life in prison without genuine possibility of parole breaches international law

Australia is in breach of its human rights obligations by allowing children to be sentenced to life in prison without the genuine possibility of parole, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has declared.

The Committee – the world’s authority on civil and political rights – issued its findings in response to a complaint brought by Bronson Blessington and Matthew Elliott, who were convicted and sentenced for the rape and murder of Janine Balding in 1988, when they were 14 and 16 respectively.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Senior Lawyer, Ruth Barson, said the question considered by the UN was not whether Blessington and Elliott should be released, but one about the legality of a system that doesn’t allow for the consideration of rehabilitation.

“No one is questioning the terrible nature of the crimes committed, but an effective and lawful response to children committing such crimes requires more than simply locking them up and throwing away the key,” said Ms Barson.

Legislative changes in the years following their sentencing mean that Mr Blessington and Mr Elliott can only be released on parole when they are in imminent danger of dying, or incapacitated. The former Premier of NSW, Bob Carr, described the regime as being designed to ensure that Blessington and Elliott would be “cemented in jail and were never to be released”.

In its decision, the Human Rights Committee held that sentences imposed on children must allow for “a possibility of review and a prospect of release, notwithstanding the gravity of the crime and the circumstances around it.” The Committee said in its decision that “this does not mean that release should necessarily be granted. It rather means that release should not be a mere theoretical possibility and that the review procedure should be a thorough one.”

Ms Barson said international human rights law, and indeed all Australian jurisdictions’ laws are clear that children should be sentenced differently to adults because of their developmental stages and unique capacity for rehabilitation.

“The prohibition on ‘life without parole’ sentences for young people is well established in international law and apart from some states in the USA, they have been eradicated around the world. As a society, we shouldn’t just slam the door on the possibility of rehabilitation. We shouldn’t just give up on children offenders, we need progress reviews built into our system – not retrospective laws that specifically prohibit them. Now a body of human rights experts have reminded Australia of this” said Ms Barson.  

The Australian Government is required to respond to the Committee’s findings within 180 days.

A copy of the decision is available here.


For further information, contact the HRLC's Ruth Barson on 0417 773 037