Ratifying OPCAT treaty must keep offshore detainees safe

20th Dec 2017

The Commonwealth’s ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) this week is a significant step forward in the protection of human rights in Australia and those of asylum seekers held in its detention facilities. To fully implement its obligations, the government must extend OPCAT’s application to offshore detention facilities, the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA) said today.

The announcement that the federal government will ratify OPCAT this week means that places of detention under Australia’s jurisdiction and control will be subjected to monitoring by a UN body, the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT). In addition, Australia will set up a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) which will be responsible for regularly monitoring detention, and reporting back to the government and the SPT to eliminate the risks of mistreatment.

ALA National President Laura Neil said that ratifying OPCAT will have an immediate, positive impact in ensuring that people detained by Australian governments are kept safe.

“In our jails, immigration detention facilities, youth detention centres and psychiatric units, abuses of human rights are all too common and often go unnoticed,” Mrs Neil said.

“The ALA has long supported the ratification of OPCAT, due to its potential to lift the standard of care of detainees, whether they are convicted prisoners, asylum seekers or others in detention,” Mrs Neil said.

Mrs Neil said that OPCAT monitoring standards meant that UN inspectors would directly visit facilities under investigation.

“The experts that monitor the OPCAT’s implementation, members of the SPT, come to the places where human rights need protection,” Mrs Neil said.

“They visit people who are detained. They have private meetings with detainees, see where they sleep, eat and bathe, and interview officers of detention facilities. They are able to assess implementation in reality, rather than from afar.”

Mrs Neil said it was essential that this OPCAT monitoring cover all detention facilities in Australia and around the world.

“The treaty requires that ‘any place under [Australia’s] jurisdiction and control, where persons are or may be deprived of their liberty’, be open to inspection by the SPT and the NPM,” Mrs Neil said.

The SPT has said that, where a country detains people outside of its own territory, then that country should enter an arrangement with the country where people are being detained to ensure that inspections can take place as required by the treaty.” 

“Australia must come to arrangements with Nauru and PNG, where there is no doubt that refugees and asylum seekers ‘are or may be deprived of their liberty’ by Australia, to allow inspections to take place,” Mrs Neil said.   

“It is also essential that the NPM is sensitive to gender and culture in establishing its working methods, and the different needs in detention of different groups in our communities when they are detained.”

“Australian workplace health and safety law applies in these countries with offshore detention, and monitoring is absolutely essential,” Mrs Neil said.

Tags: Human rights