Australia Bungles UN Torture Committee Visit

Last month, the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) prematurely suspended their visit to Australia, after being denied entry to NSW and Queensland facilities. Human rights experts have condemned the state governments’ actions as an “international embarrassment”.

The SPT was conducting its first visit to Australia to carry out its mandate under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).

What is OPCAT?

OPCAT is an agreement currently ratified by 91 states, including Australia. We became a party to the agreement back in 2017, under the Turnbull government. The decision came in the wake of a royal commission into horrific conditions in juvenile detention centres, especially in the NT.

Member states agree to allow unannounced and unhindered visits by the Subcommittee, which tours “places throughout the country where people are deprived of liberty.” The SPT is not an oversight body – it doesn’t carry out inspections. Rather, its function is preventative.

The SPT assesses the risk of torture in detention facilities, and then makes recommendations to the government via confidential reports.  Parties are encouraged to make these reports public, but that decision is voluntary – just like the decision to sign onto OPCAT.

According to the agreement, countries are also obligated to establish a national preventative mechanism (NPM) which functions as a consistent watchdog for the prevention of torture.

Why was the SPT visit to Australia suspended?

The SPT’s first visit to Australia began on the 16th of October, and detention facilities in the ACT, NT, and several immigration centres were successfully toured by the SPT. But the visit was suspended on the 23rd of October, when facilities in NSW and Queensland refused entry to the Subcommittee.

Aisha Shujune Muhammad, the head of the visiting delegation, stressed the decision was “not [one] that the SPT has taken lightly.” SPT visits have only been suspended three times before.

In NSW, the SPT was turned away from facilities in Sydney and Queanbeyan, with the state corrections minister, Geoff Lee, praising staff for refusing the UN entry. “The whole role of our jail system is to keep people safe, protect us from the criminals that we lock up every day,” he said. “They should be off to Iran looking for human rights violations there.”

A Corrective Services NSW spokesperson said the SPT was refused entry because they “did not have prior approval”. As Amnesty International pointed out however, Australia invited the Subcommittee, and the nature of their visits is supposed to be unannounced, to avoid distortion or cover-up.

In Queensland, the delegation was unable to visit mental health facilities, with a QLD Health spokesperson claiming they were bound by the Mental Health Act 2016 to limit the SPT’s access. In other jurisdictions, governments have changed laws to allow OPCAT visits, as, again, Australia has known for five years that SPT visits would happen.

Queensland has since promised to introduce legislation allowing OPCAT freer access, potentially leaving NSW as the only jurisdiction to refuse cooperation.

The Guardian Australia also reports that the Perrottet government planned to refuse SPT entry because of disagreements with the federal government around who would fund any changes recommended in an OPCAT report. Amnesty International Australia campaign director Tim O’Connor agreed with this assessment, saying people in detention centres were being used as “pawns”.

“It’s deeply embarrassing,” said Sophie McNeill of Human Rights Watch. “.”We work with a whole range of governments, some of them really in authoritarian [countries], to try and encourage them to cooperate with the UN and the importance of these kinds of UN bodies and treaties. And here we are in Australia, not upholding our international obligations.”

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