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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  1. AT LAST – STATS ON CHILDREN IN DETENTION

    JOINT SELECT COMMITTEE ON AUSTRALIA’S
    IMMIGRATION DETENTION NETWORK
    *Q298*
    Question: How many children are in detention as of today? We would like the breakdown
    for:
    a) the number being held in detention and community detention and
    b) how many are unaccompanied minors
    Answer:
    According to DIAC operational data, as at COB 14 March 2012, there were a total
    of 479 minors (including 19 crew) held in immigration detention facilities, and of
    these, 59 were awaiting transfer into community detention in coming days.
    There were 544 minors in community detention.
    Of the 479 minors held in immigration detention facilities, 254 were
    unaccompanied minors.
    Of the 544 minors in community detention, 130 were unaccompanied minors.
    Once transfers are complete, there will be 420 minors in detention facilities, and
    603 in community detention.

    BREAKDOWN
    TOTAL CHILDREN held in all forms of detention = 1023
    Total Children in Community detention= 544
    Total Unaccompanied Minors (UAM) in locked detention = 254
    Total UAMS in Community detention= 130

    The promise that the “Majority” of children will be placed in Community detention just scrapes home.
    Pity we cant make it -ALL CHILDREN will be placed in the Community- no child will stay in locked detention.

    Pamela Curr
    Campaign Coordinator
    Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
    12 Batman st West Melbourne 3003
    ph 03 9326 6066 / 0417517075

    “NO ONE CHOOSES TO BE AN ASYLUM SEEKER”