UN inspectors primed for ‘unfettered access’ to Australian detention centres

United Nations human rights inspectors will have “completely unfettered access to all places of detention” when they visit Australia in coming months.

This week the UN subcommittee on prevention of torture announced it would visit six countries to inspect places of detention, including Australia and Nauru.

It will be the first time Australia is subject to the inspections, which it is obliged to allow after ratifying the optional protocol to the convention against torture (Opcat) in December 2017, more than eight years after signing it. The protocol was designed to prevent the mistreatment of people in detention, through inspection processes.

The chair of the subcommittee, Sir Malcolm Evans, told Guardian Australia inspectors had “the right of unannounced access to any place of detention or any place we believe people might be being deprived of their liberty”.

“Our visits are relatively short, we can’t look at everything. We have to be strategic. We will be doing our homework.”

He said he was confident the Australian authorities would understand and cooperate with the inspectors’ expectation of “completely unfettered access to all places of detention, to any person, place or thing, to people of all categories in detention”.

The inspectors will have a broad brief, including prisons, youth detention, immigration detention, psychiatric hospitals, police stations and social care environments such as aged care and disability homes.

“The reality is these are institutions that are supported, regulated and run by the state,” Evans said. “The reality is people are being detained and subjected in some instances to forms of ill treatment for which the state would be accountable.”

He said the subcommittee was particularly concerned about marginal groups in society which are often subject to poorer treatment than others for various reasons including disability, race, age and infirmity.

Evans said a key issue for the subcommittee was to help nations set up their own oversight bodies with similar powers to the subcommittee.

Countries were usually obliged to establish the mechanism within a year, but Australia exercised a right to delay it until the end of 2021.

Evans said the subcommittee also hoped to prompt some “self reflection” about the way a country runs its custodial systems.

After each visit, the committee writes a confidential report for the subject nation’s government, which it is encouraged to release.

Australia’s detention facilities have been extensively criticised, and subjected to countless investigations, reports, inquiries and royal commissions.

Prison populations are rising, particularly those of women and Indigenous people, in an increasingly privatised system.

“Abuse thrives behind closed doors,” said Ruth Barson, a legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre, welcoming the international scrutiny.

“While independent scrutiny is essential to expose abuse, the onus will be on our governments to then take action and end mistreatment.”

Youth detention has come under the spotlight in recent years with the Northern Territory royal commissions, and separate reports on facilities in Victoria, Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland, and the royal commission into aged care continues to hear shocking allegations of mistreatment of elderly residents.

Australia’s immigration policies – of which detention is a major pillar – have been criticised by international human rights organisations, legal groups, the United Nations and other governments.

Domestic immigration detention centres, which are federal facilities often run by private companies, have hosted multiple acts of alleged mistreatment and abuse against detainees. Human rights and legal groups have accused the government of operating without transparency, allowing alleged abuses to go uninvestigated.

Australia’s offshore immigration facilities are outside the subcommittee’s mandate for its Australia visit, but the regional processing centre on Nauru will be inspected for a second time this year.

Nauru was previously inspected in 2015, but Evans noted it has yet to establish the prevention mechanism, has not responded to the inspectors’ findings, and has not made the report public.


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