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Source: The Conversation (Au and NZ) – By Lindsay A. Pearce, Research Associate, Curtin University

From October 16 to 27, United Nations will pay a special visit to look at some of the hidden corners of Australian society.

A UN torture prevention subcommittee will be making unannounced visits to various places of detention. These could include adult prisons, youth detention facilities, immigration detention centres, police cells, mental health institutions, and secure welfare facilities.

It will be looking for opportunities to prevent abuse and improve conditions of detention.

The visit will place international pressure on Australia to finally move forward with its commitments under the UN anti-torture protocol, on which the country has been dragging its feet.

It’s also a unique opportunity for Australians to see what’s happening behind closed doors and to demand better transparency, accountability, and treatment of vulnerable citizens.

Preventing harm

The subcommittee is a new treaty body that supports UN member states to prevent torture and mistreatment.

It has a right to unannounced visits to examine the treatment of people in prisons and other places of detention in countries that have signed the anti-torture protocol.

The subcommittee can publicly report their findings.

The anti-torture protocol signifies a commitment to establish independent monitoring bodies, called “national preventive mechanisms”. The bodies can freely access all places of detention, make recommendations, and engage in constructive dialogue to facilitate changes that prevent harm, mistreatment, and human rights abuses. Each state and territory, as well as the federal government, is expected to have its own monitoring body.

Like the subcommittee, the Australian monitoring bodies can show up completely unannounced so they can see what conditions are like when facilities haven’t been given advance notice.

These kinds of inspections are a powerful tool for transparency and accountability within sectors that typically operate behind closed doors.

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Australia dragging its feet

Unfortunately, Australia has not upheld its commitment.

Australia first signed the anti-torture protocol in 2009 and ratified it in 2017, joining 91 other countries.

After postponing the 2018 deadline to establish monitoring bodies and missing the latest deadline in January 2022, the UN reluctantly granted Australia another one-year extension.

So far, the federal government and the governments of Western Australia, Tasmania and the ACT have identified who will comprise their monitoring bodies. But New South Wales, Queensland, and Victoria have resisted until federal funding is confirmed.

By January 23 2023, all states and territories are required to have a monitoring body that’s fully compliant with the requirements laid out by the anti-torture protocol.

The apparent reason for the delay is a funding stalemate between the federal government and state and territory governments. The latter are responsible for nominating and coordinating their own jurisdictional monitoring bodies.

It’s hoped the subcommittee visit will speed up the implementation of the anti-torture protocol.

People deprived of liberty are vulnerable

Australia’s delay in establishing a monitoring body has been described as an international shame.

Prisons and other places of detention house some of our most vulnerable citizens. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2018:

  • 40% of people in Australian prisons had a pre-existing mental illness
  • 65% had used illicit drugs in the past year
  • 21% had a history of self-harm
  • 30% had a chronic illness
  • and 29% had a disability.

What’s more, over one-third of deaths in Australian prisons in 2020-21 were self-inflicted.

The statistics are similar in youth detention and immigration detention.

These vulnerabilities make people extremely susceptible to the physical and psychological harms of mistreatment.

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Human rights abuses

Australia has an abysmal reputation when it comes to protecting the health and human rights of those in detention. A few examples of the conditions people may be subjected to include:

Despite recommendations from the 2017 Royal Commission into the Detention and Protection of Children in the Northern Territory, the following are still commonly reported in youth detention across Australia:

Disproportionate harm

These conditions disproportionately affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. They are around ten times more likely than non-Indigenous people to be detained in prison and 17 times more likely to be detained in the youth justice system. This is largely due to the ongoing impacts of colonisation, systemic racism, and over-policing.

There have been 517 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody since the 1991 royal commission into the issue.

The anti-torture protocol ensures governments are accountable to the unique needs of all people deprived of liberty, including Indigenous people, children, and those with a disability.

A different future

Australia has a dark past when it comes to human rights in places of detention. Our future can, and must, be better.

The subcommittee’s visit should be a catalyst for establishing routine, independent monitoring that Australia has committed to under the anti-torture protocol.

It signals change towards collaborative, open discussion about the prevention of harm, mistreatment, and human rights abuses in all places where people are deprived of their liberty.

The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of the following people who provided input on this article: Daphne Arapakis of Koorie Youth Council, Tiffany Overall of YouthLaw, and Fergus Peace of Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service.

The Conversation

Stuart Kinner receives funding from the NHMRC for research on the health of people in contact with the justice system. He is a technical advisor on the WHO Health in Prisons Programme.

Lindsay A. Pearce does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

ref. Why is a UN torture prevention committee visiting Australia? –