Australia announces intention to ratify OPCAT

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Following a sustained campaign by national and international NGOs, the media and the Human Rights Commission (among many others), the Australian government today announced its intention to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) by December 2017.

This is welcome news, coming as it does after a year in which the horrific abuses of indigenous youth at Don Dale detention centre came to light. It is particularly welcome because, by ratifying OPCAT, Australia will commit itself to setting up a National Preventive Mechanism (NPM), tasked with conducting preventive monitoring of every place of deprivation of liberty in the country, including prisons and police stations, but also closed psychiatric institutions, aged care homes, and migrant detention centres.

Australia’s federal system will make implementing a comprehensive national oversight system challenging but this is not insurmountable. Canada is moving towards ratification this year and is finding solutions to many of the same issues. Brazil, a State party since 2007 now has preventive mechanisms working at both national and state level. By joining the OPCAT system, Australia can benefit from other federal states’ experiences, as well as show the way to others, particularly in the region, where it otherwise risks being left behind.

The existence of offshore detention facilities adds an additional layer of complexity that will have to be resolved, particularly as these are sites of many of the worst abuses that have come to light in recent years. Christmas Island, for example, where many hundreds of asylum seekers are often held, will fall under the oversight of any future NPM. However, centres in other countries, like those in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, will not. Nauru has ratified OPCAT, and, as such, was visited by the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture, but it has yet to set up a domestic monitoring system under the treaty.

Australia has played a leadership role in the development of international human rights law, from the moment in 1948 when, as president of the UN General Assembly, the then Minister for Foreign Affairs hailed the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as “a step forward in a great evolutionary process.” 83 states around the world have ratified OPCAT. This announcement of intention to ratify is a welcome step towards joining them. 

The full statement of the Attorney General