Australia to become first OECD nation on UN human rights non-compliance list

The UN is set to sanction Australia for failing to meet its international human rights obligations. On Saturday, in an exclusive interview with The Saturday Paper, vice-chair of the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT), Aisha Shujune Muhammad, said that Australia has failed to implement the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT).

The UN maintains a list of State Parties whose compliance with obligations under Article 17 of OPCAT are overdue by at least three years. Currently, 14 countries have been sanctioned for non-compliance. Australia would be the first OECD nation to be included in the Article 17 list.

“It is unfortunate, to put it very lightly, that Australia was unable to do it within five years. Once the obligation is not met in a timely manner, that is reflective of how seriously those obligations are taken at face level,” Muhammad stated.

Australia ratified the Optional Protocol in 2017 following its election to serve on the UN Human Rights Council from 2018 to 2020. Under OPCAT, State Parties are required to establish independent inspection and monitoring bodies for all detention facilities and to allow regular visits from the UN subcommittee to all detention facilities, both of which Australia has failed to implement effectively. Additionally, each state and territory must establish an internal inspection and compliance body, which Australia has failed to fully implement within the contemplated timeframe.

Article 17 of OPCAT states:

Each State Party shall maintain, designate or establish, at the latest one year after the entry into force of the present Protocol or of its ratification or accession, one or several independent national preventive mechanisms for the prevention of torture at the domestic level. Mechanisms established by decentralized units may be designated as national preventive mechanisms for the purposes of the present Protocol if they are in conformity with its provisions.

The SPT suspended its review of Australian detention facilities in October last year after delegates were unable to adequately access the facilities. In February, the SPT cancelled its subsequent visit to Australia after they were unable to obtain sufficient assurances from the State Party that it would be able to access all requested facilities.

Following the SPT cancelling its visit in February, the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) urged the Australian government to take steps to reaffirm its commitment to the OPCAT. Commission President Professor Rosalind Croucher warned that the cancellation would put Australia at risk of being placed on the Article 17 list.

“This outcome could severely damage Australia’s reputation as a leading advocate for a rules-based international system,” Professor Croucher said. In 2022, the AHRC released an updated report outlining the actions required for Australia to meet compliance with the OPCAT.