The ABC’s 7.30 program recently confirmed that harsh, and possibly illegal, treatment of young detainees in Australia is not confined to the Northern Territory when it broadcast images of alleged abuse in a centre in Townsville. Evidence of inappropriate treatment from a centre in Tasmania has also come to light.
The debate started in earnest, though, in late July, when the ABC’s Four Corners program revealed dismaying scenes of abuse from the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre near Darwin.
The footage was so shocking that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull immediately called a royal commission to investigate the treatment of detainees. The commission will hold its first directions hearing on Tuesday.
What is truly shocking about these revelations is not so much the treatment of those vulnerable young people (confronting as it is), but that it is happening in a wealthy country like Australia.
Some years ago, I worked for the Association for the Prevention of Torture, a Swiss organisation focused on improving detention conditions around the world. I saw detention systems using prolonged solitary confinement, inadequate hygiene, nutrition and health care, inappropriate use of chemical and mechanical restraints, physical and psychological abuse, and even torture.
For example, Cameroon struggles to construct modern, hygienic prisons. Families and church groups are forced to take responsibility for feeding prisoners and providing health care. Prisoners are reportedly beaten and even chained in their cells.
In 2014, Cameroon’s budget for justice and corrections was around A$100 million. This was an increase from approximately A$67 million in 2013, in an effort to combat the acknowledged problems. By contrast, Australia – which has roughly the same general population – spent around A$14 billion on its justice system in 2012-13.
That is why it is so shocking to see conditions not far removed from Cameroon’s here. In Australia, these conditions are the result of choices – not a lack of options.
What does international law say?
As long ago as 1955, the United Nations adopted the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. These set out minimum standards for living conditions, nutrition and health care, restraint, guard training and more.
These rules were updated just last year; the revised version is known as the “Mandela Rules”. The conditions and treatment on display at Don Dale in Darwin failed to meet many of these international standards.
Because so many countries have failed to meet these standards, the UN adopted the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT) in 2002. This creates a system of inspections and training to improve conditions in all places of detention – not just prisons, but anywhere people are not free to leave at will.
Parties to the OPCAT commit to establishing a national preventive mechanism: a group of expert inspectors and educators who regularly visit and report on places of detention. It also establishes the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture – an international preventive mechanism involving visits to countries that are party to the treaty and reports to the UN on their performance.
Australia needs to commit
The Association for the Prevention of Torture has been tracking countries’ progress in ratifying and implementing the OPCAT.
Currently, 81 countries are parties to the OPCAT. Of these, 64 have set up their national preventive mechanisms.
Australia is one of 17 countries to have signed (in 2009), but not yet ratified. The government’s National Interest Analysis, produced in consultation with states and territories, reported in 2012 that ratification would be desirable. It would complement and strengthen measures already in place to prevent torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in Australia.
This analysis stated:
Undertaking monitoring of places of detention in accordance with the Optional Protocol will achieve a more national and comprehensive approach with a greater ability to identify gaps and issues particular to individual Australian jurisdictions, or commonly experienced by all.
Later in 2012, the parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Treaties recommended ratification. It agreed this would be in the national interest.
Importantly, both the government and the parliamentary committee agreed the cost of establishing a national preventive mechanism would be justified, especially if existing oversight bodies – for example ombudsmen’s offices and human rights commissions – were to do the monitoring.
They also acknowledged evidence from New Zealand and the UK, both of which have ratified the OPCAT, showing the legal and healthcare costs associated with ill-treatment of detainees are enormous.
Australia unquestionably can afford to provide better standards in detention. It needs to do so particularly for vulnerable groups such as young people and those with disabilities. A proper preventive system, with the power to ensure improvements and an international element for further accountability, is urgently needed.
The federal government has long prevaricated on OPCAT, pointing out that detention is largely a state and territory responsibility. However, in calling the royal commission it showed a willingness to intervene swiftly and decisively in a time of crisis.
Ratification and implementation of the OPCAT is squarely within the federal government and parliament’s constitutional power. This must now be prioritised. If the government does not commit to prevention, we as a society will continue to pay dearly for dubious “cures” like the royal commission.