Detention treaty in everyone’s interests

Phil Lynch
Herald Sun

In a long overdue move, Australia has moved a step closer towards independent monitoring, inspection and oversight of places of detention.

Overcrowding has been blamed for riots in recent years at Christmas Island, Darwin and Sydney’s Villawood (pictured) detention centres. HWT Library

A few weeks ago, the Commonwealth Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, tabled a report in parliament outlining the national interest in Australia becoming a party to a major international treaty on detention monitoring, the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.

The question as to whether to ratify the treaty has now been referred to a parliamentary committee for its views.

The question as to whether to ratify the treaty has now been referred to a parliamentary committee for its views.

In my view, it is imperative that Australia ratifies and implements the Optional Protocol as a matter of priority.

The Optional Protocol aims to prevent ill treatment and promote humane conditions of detention by establishing systems for independent monitoring and inspection.

It is not only in the interests of persons deprived of liberty, but also the broader community, that all places of detention – whether prisons, psychiatric hospitals, police cells or disability facilities – promote rehabilitation and reintegration.

It is fundamental that all detainees are treated with basic dignity and respect. Independent inspections and oversight are critical in this regard.

At the national level, the Optional Protocol requires that countries establish what is known as a “national preventative mechanism”, or NPM.

An NPM is an independent body with a mandate to conduct both announced and unannounced visits to places of detention, to make recommendations to prevent ill treatment and improve conditions, and to report publicly on its findings and views. Australia does not currently have an NPM.

At the international level, the Optional Protocol establishes an independent committee of experts, the UN Sub-Committee on the Prevention of Torture, with a mandate to carry out country missions to monitor deprivations of liberty.

The whole system is premised on the evidence and experience that external scrutiny of places of detention can prevent torture and other forms of ill treatment.

By making places of detention more open, transparent and accountable, it helps to ensure that persons deprived of liberty – whether people with psychiatric illness, prisoners, people with disability or asylum seekers – are treated with basic dignity and respect.

Australia signed the Optional Protocol in May 2009. Since that time, progress on ratification and implementation has been slow, with wrangling between the states and the Commonwealth about who is to foot the modest bill for detention monitoring and oversight.

This is despite international evidence as to the very high social and economic costs of failing to prevent and redress ill-treatment.

The treaty has already been ratified and successfully implemented in a number of comparable countries, such as New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

In New Zealand, the system of independent monitoring is estimated to have saved taxpayers up to $30 million by preventing cases of ill-treatment in detention.

In Australia, by contrast, with our current inadequate detention monitoring systems, taxpayers have forked out over $20 million in compensation for ill-treatment in immigration detention alone over the last decade.

The Commonwealth, state and territory governments should all prioritise ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol.

Any further delay in the prevention of ill-treatment in detention has intolerable social and economic costs and is simply not an option.

Phil Lynch is Executive Director of the Human Rights Law Centre (http://www.hrlc.org.au). He has previously worked for a homelessness service and as a commercial lawyer.

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