Australia's ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) could be the single most positive step in a generation towards protecting the human rights of detainees, according to Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow.
Speaking on 19 September at Charles Dawin University, Commissioner Santow examined how OPCAT would improve the rights of detainees.
In his Austin Asche Oration in Law and Governance, the Commissioner said: “In February 2017, the Federal Government made what could be the single most positive step in a generation towards protecting the human rights of detainees.
“By announcing that it will ratify OPCAT by December, the Government has committed to establish a regime of independent inspections for all places of detention in Australia, including prisons, youth detention centres and immigration detention centres.”
Commissioner Santow said evidence before the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory was further confirmation action was needed.
“OPCAT presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shine a light in these dark places, to cease detention practices we know to be harmful, and to learn from best practice in Australia and around the world,” he said.
"What this treaty will do is to enhance how independent bodies inspect places of detention in Australia. The idea is to identify and address problems before they escalate into serious mistreatment and worse.
"In other words, OPCAT takes a preventive approach. Through regular and unannounced visits, the problems in places of detention will be more rigorously identified. And then, through an ongoing and consultative dialogue with those in charge of detention facilities, these problems should be addressed.
"The United Nations will also be able to send a monitoring team to Australia – most likely, once every 8-10 years – to inspect a small selection of detention facilities.
"We should be under no illusions about the scope of detention problems in Australia.
"Countless reports say we need to improve conditions of detention. Horrifying images, such as those broadcast last year from the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, show we must act now."
The Austin Asche Oration in Law and Governance honours the service of The Hon Austin Asche AC QC to the people of the Northern Territory and his contribution to the law, tertiary education and to the community.
Read Commissioner Santow's Austin Asche Oration in full.