UN urges Australia to improve treatment of people in detention

A report from the UN Committee Against Torture urges government action to improve Australia’s treatment of people in police custody, prisons, youth detention centres and immigration detention.

The report follows a UN subcommittee visit to review places of detention in Australia, which was dramatically suspended in October when authorities in NSW and Queensland refused to allow access to some facilities.

The Committee has made continued requests to resume the visit with unfettered access, in line with Australia’s obligations under the Optional Protocol for the Prevention of Torture. PIAC is one of many civil society organisations supporting that request.

The Committee’s concluding observations from the shortened visit include critical recommendations for protecting human rights in places of detention. It adopts several recommendations made by PIAC in our advocacy on asylum seeker rights, the overrepresentation of First Nations people in custody, ending the use of solitary confinement in youth detention and raising the age of criminal responsibility.

Immigration detention

The Committee made significant criticisms of the Australian immigration detention system. Notably, the Committee condemned and called for an end to Australia’s policy of mandatory detention, including for children, with no maximum length of detention or assessment of individual risk.

Prior to the UN visit, PIAC led and coordinated joint recommendations from the asylum seeker and refugee sector. A number of PIAC’s specific recommendations have been adopted in the concluding observations, including ensuring that detainees have access to medical care and ending the routine use of physical restraints in immigration detention.

Highlighting the poor conditions in onshore immigration detention centres, the report called for guaranteed access to adequate social, education, and mental and physical health services, and prompt investigation of all allegations of excessive force.

The Committee noted high reported rates of mental health concerns among migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in detention, which correlate to the length and conditions of detention and the reported excessive use of force and physical restraint with impunity.

‘Australia’s immigration detention regime is deliberately harsh and intimidating, even for people who have a right to seek our protection from persecution,’ says Lucy Geddes, Senior Solicitor at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC).

‘Australia has a duty of care to the people we detain. It is unacceptable that people in immigration detention are not receiving the urgent medical care they need.’

‘Many asylum seekers have a history of trauma and torture. Use of restraints like handcuffs can have severe impacts on their mental health. We welcome the UN Committee’s assessment that the routine use of restraints in immigration detention must end.’

Indigenous people in the criminal justice system

The Committee drew attention to the overrepresentation of First Nations people in custody, noting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people represent 3.8 percent of the Australian population but around 30 percent of the prisoner population.

It observed that a ‘transformational change’ is needed and called on Australia to identify and address the underlying causes of the high rates of incarceration, including by enhancing non-custodial measures and diversion programs.

The Committee emphasised the crisis of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander deaths in custody. It called for assessment and evaluation of programs for prevention of suicide and self-harm, as well as effective and independent investigations of deaths in custody.

Juvenile detention and raising the age

The Committee was ‘seriously concerned’ that children as young as 10 are found criminally responsible in Australia and called for the minimum age of criminal responsibility to be raised in accordance with international standards.

‘The NSW Government has failed to act on the advice of medical and legal experts, and even a report prepared on behalf of State and Territory Attorneys-General – all calling to raise the age to at least 14,’ says Emma Bastable, PIAC First Nations Justice Solicitor. ‘Now that the UN has weighed in, we hope they can see how far out of step we are with minimum international standards.’

‘More than 100 children aged 10–13 are locked up in NSW each year. Most are Aboriginal. We need a system that will support those young people to thrive rather than cause harm and increase the risk of on-going contact with the criminal justice system. There are many existing and proven alternatives to prison that help children learn and take responsibility.’

Noting the high number of children in detention, the Committee called for active promotion of non-judicial measures such as diversion, mediation and counselling, and use of non-custodial sentences such as probation and community service.

It said that ‘all necessary measures’ must be taken to address the persistent overrepresentation of First Nations children and children with disabilities in the juvenile justice system.

The Committee also urged an immediate end to the practice of holding children in solitary confinement while in detention and an explicit prohibition on the use of force to coerce or discipline children in custody.

’We know how harmful it is to lock children up in isolation’ says Grace Gooley, PIAC Senior Solicitor. ‘Now the independent experts from the UN are also calling for an end to this damaging practice.’

‘Juvenile detention should be about rehabilitation and giving young people an opportunity to develop the skills they need to succeed outside of the criminal justice system. The evidence shows that locking them up in isolation is likely to exacerbate factors that may have led them to offend in the first place.’

‘We remain concerned that the UN Subcommittee was denied access to places of detention in NSW. Australia signed up to the Optional Protocol and its human rights obligations. The UN inspectors must be allowed to do their job and assess the conditions inside all prisons and detention centres, not just those that governments decide to let them see.’

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