Summer 2016-17

Shining a light behind closed doors

why Australia should ratify the OPCAT

The members of the St Vincent de Paul Society are exhorted in The Rule to ‘speak on behalf of those who are ignored.’ It is no surprise then, that the Society is closely involved in the campaign to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture (OPCAT), writes Corinne Dobson.

It has often been said that prisons and other places of detention are a mirror of society and its values. Nelson Mandela famously observed that ‘no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones’.

Mandela’s statement has particular resonance following the revelations of abuse and degrading treatment in Don Dale and other juvenile detention facilities across Australia.

Examples of ill-treatment of those deprived of their liberty are unfortunately all too common in Australia. A succession of media scandals, coronial inquests, and inquiries have revealed abusive treatment and neglect often thrives behind the walls of closed institutions or places of detention—whether it is substandard conditions in immigration detention, neglect and abuse in secure dementia care units, sexual abuse in disability care homes, the excessive use of shackling and chemical restraints in psychiatric facilities, or the preventable death of a young woman in police custody.

The risk of human rights abuses exists in all places where people are deprived of their liberty.

By its very nature, detention puts people in a vulnerable situation—they are shut off from outside scrutiny and are entirely reliant on the authorities that have detained them for their basic needs.

But Australia has a unique opportunity to prevent abuse and safeguard the dignity of our most vulnerable, by ratifying a treaty aimed at preventing torture and ill-treatment of people.

What is the OPCAT?

The Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) is an international human rights treaty that ensures places of detention are subject to independent monitoring and oversight.

In essence, this treaty is about safeguarding the dignity and rights of those in detention and closed institutions—not by creating a new set of international obligations or human rights standards, but by establishing a practical means of putting existing human rights obligations into effect. In this regard, the OPCAT is unique. It aims to minimise the risk of human rights abuses by opening up places of detention to independent oversight by international and domestic monitoring bodies.

When a country ratifies the OPCAT, its main obligation is to set up an independent monitoring body (or bodies) called a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM). These domestic monitoring bodies must be fully independent, sufficiently resourced, equipped with the requisite expertise, and unrestricted in their ability to regularly access places of detention and all relevant information. Legislated protections must be in place to ensure detainees, staff and all others who provide information to monitoring bodies are able to do so freely and without fear of reprisals.

Critically, the central purpose of monitoring established under the OPCAT is not to merely detect human rights abuses after they occur. Unlike other human rights treaties and instruments, it focusses on the prevention of human rights abuses, rather than redress after the fact.

While NPMs must be able to make their findings public, their purpose is not to name and shame, but to work constructively with authorities to address risk factors and systemic issues before they escalate.

We cannot allow abuse, violence and neglect to fester in the shadows. If the test of a decent society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, then Australia must act now, and ratify the OPCAT.

Progress and impediments to the OPCAT

More than 80 countries have ratified the OPCAT, yet progress in Australia has been slow.

Australia became a signatory to the OPCAT in 2009 (signing up to a treaty is a precursor to ratification; ratification puts the treaty into effect via legislation or other necessary measures).

Support for prompt ratification was reiterated in 2012, when the Bill for the treaty was introduced to Federal Parliament and endorsed by the parliamentary committee that deals with international treaties. The Commonwealth and state and territory governments set up a joint working group and developed a model bill for implementing the OPCAT’s international obligations.

Despite this, progress has stalled and the final steps toward ratification are yet to be taken. While ratification is endlessly delayed and deferred, the treatment and needs of those in detention remains in the shadows, allowing abuse and neglect to occur undetected and unchecked.

A call for ratification

Australia has often touted its credentials as a leader in human rights. Preventing human rights abuses in detention and closed institutions, and among some of society’s most vulnerable and marginalised, is perhaps one of the most telling indications of the depth of this commitment.

From the solitude and separation of his prison cell on Robben Island, the basic premise of Mandela’s words continues to be true: if you are judging how well any society respects human rights, you would be well-served to delve behind the closed walls of prisons and other institutions to see how those deprived of their liberty are treated.

Australia has a unique opportunity to prevent human rights abuses in places of detention by ratifying the OPCAT. Regular, independent monitoring has the potential to make a real difference to the multitude of people in closed institutions across Australia.

As we incarcerate more people than ever before, and as incidents of cruelty and neglect proliferate, it is imperative to take action to prevent abuse, and to safeguard the dignity of people in detention.

We cannot allow abuse, violence and neglect to fester in the shadows. If the test of a decent society is how it treats its most vulnerable members, then Australia must act now and ratify the OPCAT.


Corinne Dobson is National Policy Advisor at the St Vincent de Paul Society, and co-convenor of the Australia OPCAT Network.

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