The United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) suspended its tour of Australian prisons on Sunday, citing a lack of cooperation from officials who denied them access to some detention facilities.
In a statement, the SPT said its staff were prevented from entering some places where people were being held, and in some cases were not given “all the relevant information and documentation” they requested.
“Given that OPCAT applies to all federal states without limitations or exceptions, it is concerning that four years after it ratified the Optional Protocol, Australia appears to have done little to ensure consistent implementation of OPCAT obligations across the country,” said the head of the four-person delegation, Aisha Shujune Muhammad.
Australia is one of 91 signatories to the UN’s Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), which aims to protect the human rights of detained people.
OPCAT had planned to visit the country’s facilities in 2020 to ensure compliance but the trip was postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Australia has also delayed key requirements of the agreement, including establishing an independent torture prevention monitoring body, officially known as the National Mechanism for Prevention of Torture (NPM), according to the UN subcommittee.
Officials finally arrived in the country for the start of the planned 12-day tour on October 16, but encountered problems accessing some sites in Queensland and New South Wales (NSW).
Police officers barred officials from entering a detention facility in Queanbeyan, NSW, said the state’s Corrective Services Minister Geoff Lee, who praised their work in an interview on local radio.
“We don’t torture people,” he told radio station 2GB. “Why should I help taxpayers … foot the bill for the UN coming to Australia? Aren’t they better off to go to places like Iran?”
The issue relates to a long-running dispute over who should pay for any improvements made to Australian facilities as a result of any recommendations made by the UN – states want the federal government to pick up the tab.
On Monday, Australia’s Attorney General Mark Dreyfus said the UN decision was “disappointing” and the country remained committed to the agreement.
“The suspension of the visit does not change the Australian government’s commitment to promoting and protecting human rights domestically and internationally,” he said.
The Australian Human Rights Law Centre issued a statement Monday signed by 79 rights advocates and advocacy groups, calling on the New South Wales and Queensland state governments to fully adhere to the country’s international obligations on torture prevention.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said state prisons keep “the highest standards anywhere in the world” and independent processes are in place to monitor conditions.
In a statement, Queensland Health said officials were denied access to some inpatient units due to provisions in the state’s Mental Health Act to “preserve the safety and privacy of people with severe mental illness.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaczszuk said the state looked forward to working with the UN on whatever access they need “under the conditions.”