Australian Government out of step in protecting children’s rights

The Commonwealth Government should ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), and all states and territories should increase the minimum age of criminal responsibility from 10 to 12 years, the Human Rights Law Centre has said in a submission to the Federal Children’s Commissioner.

The Human Rights Law Centre’s Director of Legal Advocacy, Ruth Barson, said that Australia is out of step with the rest of the world when it comes to children’s rights in the criminal justice system.

“Increasing the age of criminal responsibility is consistent with Australia’s human rights law obligations; and is also consistent with evidence showing that brain development of children under 12 is not sufficient to enable criminal responsibility," said Ms Barson.

The Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child encourages countries to set a minimum age of 12 years, and preferably higher than this. An international study of 90 countries revealed that 68 per cent had a minimum age of criminal responsibility of 12 or higher, and the most common minimum age was 14 years.

"Most children involved in the criminal justice system come from backgrounds charcaterised by severe disadvantage. The complex needs of vulnerable children should be addressed through developmentally appropriate early intervention and prevention programs, rather than the criminal justice system," said Ms Barson.

The HRLC’s submission also highlights the importance of Australia ratifying OPCAT to ensure Australia adopts comprehensive investigation and inspection mechanisms for places of detention.

Ms Barson said that it is essential that all detainees in Australia are treated with basic dignity and respect and independent inspections and oversight of detention facilities are critical to this end.

“Preventing torture and ill-treatment when people are deprived of their liberty is one of Australia’s foundational human rights obligations,” said Ms Barson.

The HRLC’s submission highlights the importance of Australia ratifying OPCAT if it is to be a regional and global leader in human rights; and if Australia is to fulfil its existing human rights obligations.

“Many of the mechanisms that exist for oversight of places of detention lack institutional, and practical independence from government. While Australia has a comprehensive complaints based system against torture and ill-treatment, prevention mechanisms need to be developed. These mechanisms are essential to ensuring the human rights of persons deprived of their liberty are properly protected,” said Ms Barson.

 The HRLC submission can be viewed here.

For further information or comment, please contact HRLC’s Ruth Barson: 0417 773 037