Petition calls for Australia to ratify UN protocol against torture in detention

Nearly 8,000 people sign petition asking government to ratify agreement it signed in 2009, which would allow UN inspections of detention centres

Nearly 8,000 people have signed a petition to the Australian government, asking it to ratify the United Nations’ Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (Opcat), which would require Australia to accept UN inspections of immigration detention centres.

A letter to Julie Bishop, the foreign minister, has accompanied the petition, asking the Australian government to formally ratify the international agreement it first signed in 2009. The letter is copied to the prime minister, as well as to federal and state attorneys general.

The protocol is designed to prevent the mistreatment of people in detention. By ratifying Australia would be required to accept international inspections of places of detention by a UN subcommittee.

The petition to the government argues Opcat creates a transparency in detention that “acts as a deterrent to violating human rights in the first place” and says “it is much harder to torture and abuse people when you are being watched”.

Bronwyn Naylor, associate professor at the law faculty of Monash University and lead signatory to the letter, told Guardian Australia that many places of detention in Australia had effective monitoring bodies in place.

“But not all places of detention are monitored, or monitored to the same standards; some have multiple monitoring bodies with different powers, some have no monitoring at all, and some have very ineffective monitoring.

“Ratifying Opcat means federal and state governments have to make sure there are really effective monitoring regimes for all places of detention. They have to set up effective monitoring bodies where they are not already in existence. Ratifying Opcat has an extra layer: governments also have to allow an international monitoring body … to visit Australian places of detention.”

Opcat was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2002. Australia signed the protocol in 2009. Signing obliges Australia not to act in a manner that would defeat the intent of the convention. But ratifying the convention would bring it into force in Australia, meaning the country would agree to be legally bound by it.

Opcat has broad international support, with 80 states parties to the protocol. It is almost universally supported across Europe. The US, notably, is neither signatory nor party.

At Australia’s recent appearance before the UN’s peer-review human rights process, more than 25 countries urged Australia to ratify Opcat.

Australiasaid in response it was considering whether to ratify Opcat. Sources within government have indicated Australia may be ready to ratify the treaty early next year.

All of the concerns over Australia’s Opcat adherence related to the treatment of people in the immigration detention system, and the absence of oversight of that regime.

Australia’s offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island have been the subject of consistent allegations of human rights abuses, including the physical and sexual abuse of men, women and children. Conditions inside the Christmas Island detention centre, too, have come under renewed scrutiny, after destructive riots following the death of Fazel Chegeni, an Iranian refugee, last month.

The UN’s relationship with Australia over immigration detention has been strained.

In September this year, UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants François Crépeau took the extraordinary step of issuing a statement from Geneva condemning Australia for blocking his access to detention centres and for its Border Force Act, which threatened jail for people who spoke to him about conditions for migrants.

“This threat of reprisals with persons who would want to cooperate with me on the occasion of this official visit is unacceptable.”

Also this year, Australia was accused of breaching its broader legal obligations under the UN’s Convention Against Torture – to which Australia is a party.

A United Nations report in March found Australia was systematically violating the Convention Against Torture by detaining children in immigration detention, and holding asylum seekers in dangerous and violent conditions on Manus Island.

The United Nations special rapporteur on torture, Juan Mendez, investigated allegations of torture and abuse of 68 countries: the section on Australia concerned itself entirely with the treatment of asylum seekers in immigration detention.

“The government of Australia, by failing to provide adequate detention conditions; end the practice of detention of children; and put a stop to the escalating violence and tension at the regional processing centre, has violated the right of the asylum seekers including children to be free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” Mendez’s report said.

But the then prime minister, Tony Abbott, reacted angrily to the scathing findings, saying Australians were “sick of being lectured to by the United Nations”.


Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp

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