The United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (UNSPT) has cancelled its visit to Australia because it cannot access all the sites it needs to investigate. The UNSPT investigates the treatment of prisoners around the world. It suspended its Australian visit last year over difficulties accessing facilities in NSW and Queensland. Those difficulties have not yet been resolved, and the visit has now been cancelled altogether.
The UNSPT monitors all countries that have signed up to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In Australia, its primary concerns are the detention of asylum seekers and First Nations incarceration rates. In October, it suspended its Australian visit because it was “obstructed” from visiting facilities in NSW and Queensland. A UNSPT representative called it a “clear breach” of Australia’s obligations, saying they were “compelled” to take the “drastic” step of suspending the visit.
Attempts to Fix
Following the suspension, Federal Government representatives met with the UN to discuss its concerns. The Federal representatives said they were engaging with the NSW and Queensland governments “as a matter of urgency.” The Queensland Government has promised to change laws that restrict access to the state’s mental health wards, which had been used to exclude the UN.
A spokesperson for Queensland Attorney-General Shannon Fentiman confirmed to TDA the Queensland Government had introduced legislation to Parliament to allow it to comply with UNSPT investigations, but these had not yet been passed into law. A spokesperson for the NSW Department of Communities and Justice said the NSW Government supported complying “in principle,” but had not yet been able to resolve funding and security issues with the Federal Government.
A spokesperson for Federal Attorney General Mark Dreyfus told TDA the Australian Government “deeply regrets” the decision, noting successful visits were carried out in “almost all jurisdictions in Australia.” “This disappointing decision does not reflect the Australian Government’s commitment to protecting and promoting human rights, and does not change our commitment to implementing Australia’s [international] obligations and to facilitating future visits from the SPT.”
Greens Senator David Shoebridge has accused the Federal Government of failing to do enough to force states to comply with Australia’s international obligations. “The opportunity for really important transparency in prisons has been missed… we know prisons in Australia are places where torture and torture-like treatment occur,” Shoebridge said. In more than a decade of operations, the UNSPT has only had to cancel a visit once before, to Rwanda in 2017-18.
What Happens Now?
Despite being unable to complete its site visits, the UNSPT will still publish its findings on Australia’s treatment of prisoners. In its meeting with Australian officials last year, the UNSPT outlined concerns likely to feature in these findings. This included “significant concerns” about the mandatory detention (including offshore detention) of refugees and asylum seekers and overrepresentation of First Nations people in prisons.