Australia moves to strengthen oversight and accountability of places of detention

Australia has moved a step closer to ensuring independent monitoring, inspection and oversight of places of detention. The Commonwealth Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, and the Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs, Craig Emerson, today tabled a National Interest Analysis on Australia's ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.

The Optional Protocol is an international treaty which aims to prevent ill treatment and promote humane conditions by establishing systems for independent monitoring and inspection of all places of detention.

"It is not only in the interests of persons deprived of liberty, but also the broader community, that all places of detention – whether prisons, psychiatric hospitals, police cells or disability facilities – promote rehabilitation and reintegration. It is fundamental that all detainees are treated with basic dignity and respect. Independent inspections and oversight are critical in this regard," said Human Rights Law Centre Executive Director, Phil Lynch.

At the national level, the Optional Protocol requires that countries establish what is known as a "national preventative mechanism", or NPM. An NPM is an independent body with a mandate to conduct both announced and unannounced visits to places of detention, to make recommendations to prevent ill treatment and improve conditions, and to report publicly on its findings and views.

At the international level, the Optional Protocol establishes an independent committee of experts, the UN Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture, with a mandate to carry out country missions to monitor deprivations of liberty.

According to Mr Lynch, "The whole system is premised on the evidence and experience that external scrutiny of places of detention can prevent and redress torture and other forms of ill treatment. By making places of detention more open, transparent and accountable, it helps to ensure that persons deprived of liberty – whether people with psychiatric illness, prisoners, people with disability or asylum seekers – are treated with basic dignity and respect."

Australia signed the Optional Protocol in May 2009. Since that time, progress on ratification and implementation has been slow, with wrangling between the states and the Commonwealth about who is to foot the modest bill for detention monitoring and oversight. According to Mr Lynch, "This is despite international evidence as to the very high social and economic costs of failing to prevent and redress ill-treatment."

Mr Lynch said that, "Now that the NIA has been tabled, the Commonwealth, state and territory governments should all prioritise ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol. Any further delay in the prevention of ill-treatment has intolerable social and economic costs and is simply not an option."