Australia receives grilling from UN experts on torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment

Australia’s asylum seeker policies and counter-terror laws came under heavy scrutiny overnight at the United Nations in Geneva when Government officials were questioned by the UN Committee Against Torture.

The Committee is currently reviewing Australia’s compliance with the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment which Australia signed up to in 1985.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Legal Advocacy, Daniel Webb, is in Geneva for the review and briefed members of the UN Committee on Friday with other NGO representatives.

Mr Webb explained that it was clear from the line of questioning that the Committee held serious concerns that Australia was breaching the Convention when conducting boat turnbacks and ‘screening out’ asylum seekers.

“International law is crystal clear – Australia can’t return people to torture. The Committee wanted to know how the Government could claim to be complying with that obligation when it has been intercepting and returning asylum seekers without any sort of due process,” said Mr Webb.

Mr Webb said it was entirely appropriate and foreseeable that the UN would be deeply concerned with Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.

“There are over 10 million refugees in the world who need protection and who can’t access it safely. Australia mistreats those who arrive and intercepts and returns those seeking to come. Australia is setting an alarming global precedent and the UN is rightfully concerned,” said Mr Webb.

The Committee also questioned the Government on its recently expanded counter-terror laws.

“In 2008 at Australia’s last review, this Committee raised its concerns that ASIO and the AFP could detain people for lengthy periods without charge and without proper oversight. Well, they still can, and the laws giving them the power to do so have just been broadened,” Mr Webb told the Committee on Friday.

The Committee was also critical of the Australian Government’s position that the Convention does not cover domestic violence. Committee members emphasized the Government’s obligation to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish violence against women and invited the Government to revisit its interpretation.

“Violence against women is one of the most serious and widespread human right problems faced by Australians. The Committee is justifiably concerned to ensure that the Government is committed to preventing and addressing violence,” said Mr Webb.

The Committee will continue to question Australia tomorrow at 3pm in Geneva (Wednesday 1am AEDST). The questioning can be viewed live here:

The Committee will then make findings and recommendations that provide a blueprint for Government action to prevent cruel and inhuman treatment.

A copy of the joint NGO report to the Committee, coordinated by the Human Rights Law Centre, can be found here

Note: Following two days of questioning from the Committee, Australia responded and Mr Webb provided and overview to ABC Radio National’s Fran Kelly – which can be listened to here.