2 State Governments in Australia Block UN Visits to Prisons

Recent Features

Oceania | Society | Oceania

2 State Governments in Australia Block UN Visits to Prisons

The gap between how human rights groups view incarcerated people, and how governments in Australia view them, continues to be wide. 

2 State Governments in Australia Block UN Visits to Prisons
Credit: Pixabay

The state governments of both Queensland and New South Wales (NSW) have come under extreme criticism for refusing United Nations inspectors’ access into its state-run detention facilitates.

In a statement, the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT) announced it had halted its visit following repeated issues around a lack of access and information gathering. 

“The SPT delegation has been prevented from visiting several places where people are detained… Despite its continued efforts to engage the authorities for the resolution of the problems, the SPT continued to be obstructed in the exercise of its mandate.”

The statement further noted that denying access to the detention facilities was a “clear breach” of Australia’s obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture (OPCAT).

The NSW government refused inspectors entry into any of its facilities, while Queensland blocked access to all mental health wards. Under its mandate, the SPT is able to make impromptu visits to all detention facilities and interview people deprived of their liberty.

Sophie McNeill from Human Rights Watch called the suspension “deeply embarrassing,” telling The Diplomat that it “sends an appalling message to the region.” 

“It undermines trust in Australia and compromises our ability to lead on human rights. Reported obstruction by several state governments is a clear breach by Australia of its obligations under OPCAT.”

The NSW corrections minister, Geoff Lee, argued that “the whole role of our jail system is to keep people safe, protect us from the criminals that we lock up every day.” 

“It’s not to allow people just to wander through at their leisure. [The United Nations] should be off to Iran looking for human rights violations there.”

It is not clear if the minister was aware that Iran is not a signatory of OPCAT.

When questioned during budget estimates about what the government’s concerns regarding U.N. visits were, Lee argued that the SPT was an “unelected body” who were looking for “spurious issues.”

“What I’m worried about is things like them coming back and saying our white bread is sliced too thinly or our stairs are too narrow… or that we should have blinds on our cells to give inmates more privacy.”

When asked if these were not important matters in accordance with the standards set by the subcommittee from previous visit to facilities, Lee replied that they were “trivial matters.”

The executive director of the Western Australian justice association, Tom Penglis, was quick to observe the potential hypocrisy Australia could be accused of in light of the NSW and Queensland government’s actions.

This is short-sightedness by the NSW government in particular,” Penglis told The Diplomat. “Refusing access to U.N. inspectors sets a dangerous precedent for other countries to follow.

“It is easy to imagine a situation where a country like Russia or China receives criticism from the West for refusing access to U.N. inspectors, and then points to the NSW government’s actions as an example of Western hypocrisy.”

In her opening remarks to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva on the November 14, Australian Human Rights Commissioner (AHRC) Lorraine Finlay drew attention to the need for Australia to “ensure compliance with obligations under OPCAT.” 

She said, “The suspension of this [OPCAT] visit was highly regrettable, and we would urge the Australian Government to assure this Committee that these issues can be resolved so that the visit may be recommenced.”

The cancellation comes at time of controversy in Australia, as many members of the police force – in several states – are facing claims of violence in prisons, racism, and overall negligence toward incarcerated people. 

Banksia Hill – a juvenile detention facility in Perth – has come under intense scrutiny from justice groups and former judges. Accusations against the facility include a lack of adequately trained staff, incidents of violence – such as children being forcibly restrained using the so-called four point restraint – the use of prolonged lockdowns and solitary confinement, as well as a swathe of suicide and self-harm attempts. 

The Western Australian government has consistently defended the facility, which WA’s prisons inspector Eamon Ryan labelled “a failure.” In a statement he observed, “All of [the reports] are saying the same thing: the excessive lockdowns, critical incidents, self-harms… all leading to crisis.” 

“One complaint or allegation is one too many.”

In Queensland, the police force was accused of clear culture problems by the state’s human rights commissioner, Scott McDougall, after leaked audio revealed officers at the Brisbane watch house using “racist” and “offensive” language toward Aboriginal and Nigerian inmates. 

The leak earlier this month followed the revelation that Queensland police recruits were taught racist language and attitudes at the training academy, with one sergeant teaching a class stating that “you can smell [Indigenous people] before you see them.”

Another incident referenced one officer discussing his wish to see an Indigenous community “Napalmed,” while others openly used racist terms in the field and were not punished.

Documentation this week revealed that the superintendent in charge of the Queensland First Nations unit was investigated for alleged racism and bullying. 

In NSW, tough on crime rhetoric has led to an imprisonment rate higher than any Western European country. Critics say the poor treatment of prisoners is one of the reasons many prisoners reoffend within the first 12 months of being released. 

All these problems paint a picture of a justice system that is under strain, with various academics and legal experts describing it as a failure. In this context, the reasoning behind the blocking of U.N. inspectors fails to inspire confidence. AHRC President Emeritus Rosalind Croucher argued this, stating: “By blocking access to facilities, the NSW and Queensland governments have raised questions about why access is being denied and if the rights, health and safety of people being detained in these facilities are at risk.”

For Australia, with an increasing prison population in facilities that have been heavily criticized previously by international bodies, these incidents serve as a reminder that the gap between how human rights groups view incarcerated people, and how the governments in Australia view them, continues to be wide.