The UN committee against torture has called for Australia to raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility and immediately end the practice of solitary confinement for children.
The committee highlighted Don Dale youth detention centre in the Northern Territory, Ashley youth detention centre in Tasmania and Banksia Hill youth detention centre in Western Australia as being of serious concern for their practice of keeping children in solitary confinement.
The findings come after the UN torture prevention subcommittee suspended its tour last month of Australian detention facilities after the New South Wales government refused inspectors entry into any facilities in the state and Queensland blocked access to mental health wards.
The UN had accused Australia of a “clear breach” of its obligations under the optional protocol to the convention against torture, ratified under Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership in 2017.
In its findings published on Friday, the UN reviewed Australia’s implementation of the convention against torture alongside Chad, El Salvador, Malawi, Somalia and Uganda.
It said it was “seriously concerned” about Australia’s “very low” age of criminal responsibility being set at 10, as well as the “persistent overrepresentation” of Indigenous children and children with disabilities in the juvenile justice system.
The findings also raised concern about reports children in detention were being “frequently” subjected to verbal abuse and racist remarks, and restrained in ways that are potentially dangerous.
The practice of keeping children in solitary confinement, in particular at Banksia Hill, Don Dale and Ashley youth detention centres, contravened the UN convention and the Nelson Mandela rules, the report said.
It was also critical of the high number of children in detention, both on remand and after sentencing, as well as the fact that children were not always being separated from adults.
It found that there was a lack of awareness among children about their rights and how to report abuses.
The report recommended that Australia raise the minimum age of criminal responsibility according to international standards, prohibit the use of physical restraints to discipline children and immediately end the practice of solitary confinement for children across all jurisdictions.
It encouraged Australia to “take all necessary measures” to reduce the incarceration rate of Indigenous children, and to ensure children with disabilities were not detained indefinitely without conviction.
Australia should also “actively promote” non-judicial measures such as diversion, mediation and counselling for children accused of criminal offences, it said, along with non-custodial sentences such as probation or community service.
It also called for Australia to ensure that detention was regularly and judicially reviewed, and for children in conflict with the law to be provided information about their rights and have access to independent complaint mechanisms and protections from risk of reprisals.
The report recorded the difficulties the subcommittee experienced being “prevented from visiting several places of detention, experienced difficulties in carrying out a full visit at other locations, and was not given all the relevant information and documentation it had requested”.
The UN invited Australia to provide “all necessary assurances” for the subcommittee to be able to resume its visit “as soon as possible”.
The report also made recommendations about other areas of concern including deaths in custody, the treatment of asylum seekers, mandatory immigration detention and offshore processing of asylum claims.
The committee said it was concerned that detention continued to be mandatory under the Migration Act 1958 for all unauthorised arrivals, including children, while the law did not provide a maximum period of detention.
The NT government said on Monday that the separation of youth detainees was an action of last resort “if requested by the detainee, if they are suffering an infectious disease, or to protect themselves or others from harm when other means of positive management have been exhausted”.
“Separation is not used as a form of punishment or discipline,” a spokesperson said in a statement.
Roger Jaensch, the Tasmanian minister for education, children and youth, said: “the Tasmanian government has worked with the UN in relation to investigations into youth justice facilities, including the Ashley Youth Detention Centre.”
“Isolation of young people is not used at the Ashley Youth Detention Centre as a form of punishment. Due to low staffing numbers, young people can experience longer periods of time within their bedrooms.
“There is no room sharing at Ashley Youth Detention Centre and, during these periods, young people at AYDC continue to have access to schooling, appointments, phone calls and exercise. In times of extended time in their bedrooms, young people are supplied with education packs, video games, music and movies.”