Tiny island nation makes waves by signing torture prevention treaty

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The tiny South Pacific island of Nauru has taken the significant step of signing up to a system of independent detention oversight by becoming a State Party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT).

Nauru is the world’s smallest independent republic with just 10,000 inhabitants, and one prison which usually houses about 20 detainees. However, in November 2012 an agreement between the Australian and Nauruan government saw the opening of an offshore processing facility on Nauru (known as the Regional Processing Facility) to house some of the asylum seekers that arrive by boat in Australia. The Nauruan government processes asylum seeker claims with support from the Australian government, although a recent report from the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, suggests that there is a lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities for the processing of claims and day-to-day running of the center.

So what does OPCAT ratification mean for Nauru? As a State Party, Nauru must establish or designate, within a year, an independent body to conduct regular visits to all places of detention within its jurisdiction and/or control (see APT’s Legal Briefing). Does this include oversight of the Regional Processing Facility? The answer is likely to be yes, given it is physically located on Nauruan territory, and it appears that the Nauruan government is responsible for the processing of claims and functioning of the center. It is up to the Nauruan government now to determine the most appropriate body or institution to conduct the detention visits.

Of course, Nauru becoming a state party to the OPCAT does not preclude Australia – a state signatory since 2009 – from taking the final step and ratifying the OPCAT. Regionally, it is hoped that Nauru’s action could prompt other small island states in the Pacific to take actions to prevent torture through becoming state parties to the UN Convention Against Torture and the OPCAT.