Australia risks being placed on a human rights blacklist alongside such countries as South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo by failing to meet its obligations in prison oversight under a UN anti-torture treaty.
The UN’s Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (Opcat) was ratified under the Turnbull government in December 2017, but Australia has since requested two deadline extensions to meet its obligations.
The failure to meet the obligations by Friday means a UN subcommittee could place Australia on a non-compliance list, alongside 14 other countries.
Australia’s human rights commissioner, Lorraine Finlay, said such a failure could affect the country’s human rights credibility on the world stage.
“We voluntarily entered into this treaty,” she told Guardian Australia.
“We freely made promises around this treaty and if we’re not going to live up to those promises, that sends a really bad signal to the rest of the world about not only Australia’s approach to human rights, but Australia’s role in terms of the rules-based international system.”
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A core part of the Opcat requires each jurisdiction to establish independent bodies – called national preventive mechanisms – to act as watchdogs that inspect prisons and other places of detention, such as youth justice facilities, police cells and mental health institutions. These bodies monitor human rights issues and make recommendations.
Human rights advocates have pointed to the abuse in youth detention centres, the over representation of First Nations people in the criminal justice system and deaths in custody, and the use of practices such as solitary confinement in prisons as examples of why scrutiny is vital.
But Australia’s three most populous states – New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland – are yet to designate their independent oversight bodies – and say they are unable to meet their Opcat obligations without federal government funding.
At a meeting of the nation’s attorneys general in December, the states and territories agreed to provide the federal government with the costings to establish oversight bodies.
Spokespeople for the Victorian and Queensland governments said discussions with the commonwealth were ongoing. A spokesperson for the NSW attorney general said the government had provided the commonwealth with anticipated funding requirement to set up the oversight body and was awaiting an outcome.
Tasmania, South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory have implemented interim or final measures to allow bodies to monitor conditions in places of detention.
Finlay said regardless of funding issues, all governments had a “basic obligation” to prevent human rights abuses of people in detention.
Alice Edwards, the UN special papporteur on torture, said watchdogs were not a “new phenomena”.
“We know, from the long history in the fight against torture, that these bodies – that visit spontaneously or regularly and are able to speak to detainees, are able to taste the food, are able to look at the conditions of the cells – are all geared towards preventing torture and other ill-treatment,” she said.
In October the UN subcommittee on the prevention of torture abandoned its trip to Australia after the NSW government blocked officials from inspecting its prisons. Queensland also refused access to mental health facilities but has since passed legislation that will allow UN officials to conduct visits.
The delegation had planned to conduct surprise visits to state, territory and commonwealth prisons facilities during its tour.
Under the treaty states and territories must allow the committee to visit places of detention. The subcommittee will meet next month to discuss resuming the visit.
The treaty was signed by Australia after the royal commission into juvenile detention in the NT, sparked by revelations of abuses at the Don Dale youth detention centre.