UN ends Australia anti-torture mission after inspectors barred

The UN says Australia was in ‘clear breach’ of its obligations under a UN protocol on torture.

Banksia Hill Detention Centre is Western Australia’s only prison for youth offenders
Only three other countries - Azerbaijan, Rwanda and Ukraine - have had anti-torture inspectors suspend or postpone missions [File: Al Jazeera]

The United Nations has suspended its anti-torture mission to Australia after inspectors were not allowed to visit several jails and detention facilities in the country, with a top official in New South Wales state justifying the blocking of the UN panel.

Tasked with touring facilities under a voluntary agreement to prevent cruelty to detainees, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) said on Sunday they made the “drastic” decision after they were refused entry at “several” jails and detention facilities.

Australia’s prisons, youth detention centres, and immigration compounds have been plagued by persistent allegations of human rights abuses. Rights groups have raised concerns about the incarceration of Indigenous communities and the detention of refugees in the country.

Australia ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) in 2017, committing to reforms safeguarding detainees and making facilities subject to inspection.

Lead inspector Aisha Muhammad, a Supreme Court judge in the Maldives, said Australia was in “clear breach” of its international obligations.

“It is deeply regrettable that the limited understanding of the SPT’s mandate and the lack of co-operation stemming from internal disagreements, especially with respect to the States of Queensland and New South Wales, has compelled us to take this drastic measure,” Muhammad noted in a statement late on Sunday “This is not a decision that the SPT has taken lightly.”

Sophie McNeil of New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) told Al Jazeera that a “bureaucratic bungle” had essentially led to the cancellation of the visit.

“There’s bipartisan support at a federal level for OPCAT … the problem is states and territories control the prisons, and they’re worried about funding that if these UN inspectors come in and say you have to do this, this and this, who’s going to pay for it?”, she said from the Australian city of Perth.

“So, unfortunately, kind of a disputed bureaucratic dispute over money has now led to really embarrassing international humiliation.”

Only three other countries – Azerbaijan, Rwanda and Ukraine – have had anti-torture inspectors suspend or postpone missions.

The panel did not say in its statement if it wanted to visit the Australian prisons in response to specific issues or if its inspection was routine.

An optional protocol on torture and degrading treatment, which Australia is a signatory to, allows unannounced SPT visits to prisons, police stations and other detention centres.

‘Sovereign country’

The premier of New South Wales, Australia’s biggest state, justified on Monday blocking the UN panel from visiting prisons, saying the state maintained high standards at its jails and Australia was a sovereign country.

Dominic Perrottet was unapologetic, telling a news conference his state had the highest standards and an independent process in place overseeing its jail system.

“We are a sovereign country in our own right and we have a high standard when it comes to correctional facilities,” he said.

“If there are complaints, if there are issues, they are dealt with appropriately … I support our independent ombudsman and correctional facilities staff in providing advice to the New South Wales government.”

Attorney General Mark Dreyfuss said it was disappointing that New South Wales had blocked the delegation’s visit.

“The decision of the SPT to cancel its visit, more than halfway through its scheduled time in Australia, is a development that could have been avoided,” he said.

HRW’s McNeill said rights groups like hers had been “really looking forward” to the visit and have had deep concerns “for many years now”.

“We’ve seen issues about prolonged solitary confinement of prisoners, particularly with disabilities,” she said.

“We’re deeply, deeply concerned about the treatment of young people and true children, particularly First Nations children.”

However, McNeill said since there was bipartisan support at the federal level for the UN investigation, “these issues can be worked out and the mission can be salvaged”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies