Failure to allow full UN prison inspections risks Australia’s international standing, experts say

Australia joins Azerbaijan, Rwanda and Ukraine among nations to fail to provide full access after ratifying agreement

Australia’s human rights reputation is in jeopardy after a United Nations anti-torture subcommittee suspended its visit when it was denied access to jails in New South Wales, inpatient units in Queensland and faced other issues in gathering information.

According to the delegation head, Aisha Shujune Muhammad, there had been a “clear breach” by Australia of its obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (Opcat) and the team had been “obstructed”.

The 12-day tour was to continue until Thursday, but the UN pulled out on Sunday afternoon.

The move sees Australia join Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Rwanda as the only nations to have ratified the agreement and then fail to provide full and unfettered access to facilities. Globally, 91 nations have ratified the agreement.

The Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Lorraine Finlay, said the state governments’ lack of cooperation was “perplexing” and potentially damaging for the country.

“If we don’t meet our obligations, the UN may consider placing Australia on its article 17 non-compliance list, a collection of countries with significant human rights concerns.

“This will be a major issue for our international standing, given that ratification of Opcat by us was part of our candidacy for a place on the UN Human Rights Council, and that Australia positions itself as a leading advocate for a rules-based international system.”

Australia ratified Opact in 2017 under then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who last week lashed state governments for blocking the inspections.

Australia will front the UN anti-torture committee in Geneva next month where delegates are likely to be quizzed on the visit.

Finlay called on all levels of government to work out their issues and invite the delegation back to finish the visit unimpeded to avoid joining Rwanda, which is currently the only country to have had its visit terminated due to prolonged access issues.

That would require NSW’s premier, Dominic Perrottet, to change his stance, which he repeated on Monday.

“We’re a sovereign country in our own right and we’ve got the highest standards when it comes to correctional facilities,” Perrottet said.

“If there is a problem, please raise it. If there’s not, we have an ombudsman in place, and I support the work that they do.”

The federal attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, expressed his disappointment at what he called an avoidable visit suspension.

“The suspension of the visit does not change the Australian government’s commitment to promoting and protecting human rights domestically and internationally,” he said.

“I assure the Australian people and the international community that the Australian government’s commitment to human rights endures. The government will continue to raise these matters with states and territories.”

Just weeks before taking office as foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong said that the country must strengthen its capacity to uphold the international human rights system and work with partners to counter attempts to undermine it.

Experts warned this mission was in danger, including Amnesty International Australia’s impact director, Tim O’Connor, who said the organisation had “grave concerns” for people incarcerated in Australia.

“This is an international embarrassment and shows how paper-thin the commitment to Opcat is,” he said.

“We need only look at the horrific experiences of young people in youth detention, allegations of systemic abuse, the continued use of tools of torture like spithoods and the hundreds of First Nations people who have died in custody to see that there are serious problems that require independent scrutiny.”

NSW corrections minister, Geoff Lee, told a budget estimates Monday that he had confidence in the state’s facilities.

But Corrective Services NSW commissioner, Kevin Corcoran, said the Inspector of Custodial Services had already delivered a report that found multiple facilities were “inadequate”.

“We’ve got our own standards … they don’t meet those standards,” he said.

Assistant commissioner, Leon Taylor, said some infrastructure dated back to the Victorian era and “does not easily support contemporary correctional practice without a lot of effort”.


Tamsin Rose

The GuardianTramp

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