A United Nations body committed to preventing torture has terminated its review of Australian places of detention after authorities in some states refused to let them in – joining Rwanda as the only other country where a visit has been terminated.
In a statement, the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) said it was canceling the remainder of a 12-day tour that was suspended last year due to “obstacles” in carrying out its mandate.
“Despite the good cooperation the Subcommittee has with the Australian Federal Authorities following our initial mission, there is no alternative but to terminate the visit as the issue of unrestricted access to all places of deprivation of liberty in two states has not yet been resolved,” SPT chairperson Suzanne Jabbour said in the statement.
Last October, the SPT said it had been prevented from visiting several places in the states of New South Wales and Queensland, calling it a “clear breach” of Australia’s obligations under the UN’s OPCAT (Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment) agreement designed to protect detainees’ human rights.
Australia is one of 91 signatories to the agreement, which allows inspectors to make unannounced visits to all places of detention, including police stations, immigration detention centers and social care institutions. The UN and human rights groups have long criticized Australia’s treatment of detainees, particularly refugees and asylum seekers who are subject to long periods of offshore detention if they arrive in the country by boat.
A spokesperson for Australia’s Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the “disappointing decision” to terminate the visit doesn’t reflect the federal government’s “commitment to protecting and promoting human rights.”
In partial findings published in November, the SPT said it was concerned about the mandatory detention of people who arrive in Australia without a valid visa, including children, and that there was no maximum time for their detention.
The committee also said it had “serious concern” about the imprisonment of children as young as 10 in places where they were “frequently subjected to verbal abuse, racist remarks and solitary confinement.” It recommended Australia raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility to international standards, which is at least 14, according to the UN’s Committee on the Rights of the Child.
The SPT also urged Australia to stop using physical restraints to discipline children in supervision and end the practice of solitary confinement for children.
Australia had made some effort to uphold its obligations by appointing representatives to the Australian National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), a body appointed by the government to comply with OPCAT rules.
However, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner Lorraine Finlay said they still hadn’t been appointed in the three largest states: New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. A joint statement from NPM representatives in some states and territories called for more support for them to be able to do their jobs.
Finlay said Australia still had a “long way to go” to meet its minimum obligations, and was at risk of being named as a country of “significant concern.”
“Being publicly listed alongside the 14 other countries which are currently substantially overdue in meeting their OPCAT obligations (such as Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan) would be damaging to our international reputation and impact on our broader credibility with respect to human rights advocacy,” Finlay said in a statement.
In October, Queensland had refused inspectors access to inpatient units, but in December changed the laws to remove privacy barriers that it said had prevented access. The change would also allow the UN to interview detainees in private, the government said in a statement.
In October, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said state prisons keep “the highest standards anywhere in the world” and had independent processes in place to monitor conditions.
Sophie McNeill, senior Australia researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Tuesday the UN’s decision to terminate the visit was “deeply embarrassing” for Australia.
“Failing to cooperate with UN experts in providing unrestricted access to sites of detention sets a terrible example to other governments in this region who don’t need more excuses to defy the UN,” she said on Twitter.