OPCAT in a Land Down Under

If this writer could not resist the temptation of employing the much-loved Men At Work ‘Down Under’ song reference in this post’s title, then you too will hopefully not resist reading the current edition of the ICPA External Prison Oversight and Human Rights Network newsletter with its Australian OPCAT focus.

As featured in an earlier article, with a spotlight on the current OPCAT implementation process in Australia the newsletter has considerable relevance for the Canadian context with its lessons of good related practice. This fact rings especially true at a time when Canadian government authorities at all levels have apparently been discussing potential OPCAT implementation among themselves, albeit lamentably with practically no one else, not least civil society.

As a fellow federal state, the parallels between Australia and Canada are not insignificant. While Australia has 9 jurisdictions (one federal, six state and two territorial in scope) compared with Canada’s 14, the distinct challenges of implementing the OPCAT in a multi-jurisdictional state structure still have to be met.

Down Under
Maitland Gaol by OZinOH (2007).

Even though reservations have been expressed in these pages about Canada adopting a multi-body approach to OPCAT implementation (please see the Canada OPCAT Project discussion paper, Instituting an NPM in Canada), Australia appears to be forging ahead in this direction, emulating countries like the United Kingdom, New Zealand and the Netherlands.

Australia ratified the OPCAT in December 2017, postponing the obligation to institute an NPM by up to three years through a Declaration under OPCAT Article 24. As a result, the country has until January 2022 at the latest to put in place its NPM.

The current ICPA newsletter offers readers a deep dive into the OPCAT implementation process in Australia through the contributions of seven leading human rights academics and detention monitors. Professor Bronwyn Naylor of RMIT University in Melbourne kicks off the Australian OPCAT discussion, offering an informative sweep to date of the overall implementation process in the country. In doing so, she comments on the task of designating multiple bodies as the future NPM:

“The implementation process in Australia therefore involves identifying all relevant places of detention, and all existing monitoring bodies, and – probably most challenging – decisions at state, territory and federal level about whether and how existing bodies could take on the OPCAT monitoring role, and what might be needed to make them OPCAT compliant …

Some of the Australian monitoring bodies, such as the prisons inspectorates and Ombudsman offices, have some or most of the OPCAT characteristics. However across Australia there are both gaps in coverage, and overlapping powers. There are also inconsistencies across states and territories, with varying degrees of independence and effectiveness of monitoring bodies.”

While a similar auditing process took place in Canada in 2017-2018, relatively little information about it has been allowed to seep into the public domain.

Down Under
Ground Floor Maitland Prison by Bill Collison (2012).

In contrast, according to Professor Naylor, in Australia the process of identifying places of detention and establishing a baseline of the extent to which existing oversight bodies are currently OPCAT-compliant is being carried out by an arms-length government body designated to coordinate OPCAT implementation in the country, the Commonwealth Ombudsman. Unlike in Canada, this study is to be made public in an upcoming 2019 report.

Contemporaneously the Australian Human Rights Commission has been conducting a broad constituency consultation into the role of civil society in the implementation of the OPCAT as well as the later operation of the NPM (please visit the institution’s OPCAT Consultation Page). If Australia is willing and able to open up its OPCAT consultation process, Canada’s closed, locked-down process remains all the more perplexing.

In a nutshell, even though the Australian OPCAT consultation process has not been without certain criticism, it remains light years ahead of Canada in terms of its openness, transparency and inclusiveness. Professor Naylor’s article offers an excellent overview of this process up to the current point in time.

Steven Caruana, the Inspections and Research Officer at the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services in Western Australia, and himself no stranger to these Canada OPCAT Project pages, convincingly argues how the OPCAT is being used to strengthen existing oversight bodies in the country, highlighting various illuminating examples thereof. He writes:

“These next two years are crucial times for the advancement of correctional oversight in Australia. Effective and substantial compliance with the OPCAT, in the fitting words of the Australian Human Rights Commissioner, Ed Santow, ‘…could be the single most positive development this decade in improving conditions in all Australian places of detention.’ State and Territory governments will need to turn their attention to the requirements of OPCAT. They will need to consider the most suitable existing agencies and what resourcing and legislative requirements will be necessary for them.

Equally important, Australian oversight agencies will need to proactively assess whether their mandate and methodologies are compatible with OPCAT.”  

Thus, OPCAT ratification is being used as a moment of introspection by the government authorities and certain existing oversight bodies, which is most encouraging.

Down Under
Light in the Darkness by Drew Douglas (2007).

In her contribution to the OPCAT discussion, Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass extends the above analysis to her own institution, noting:

“When, in 2017, the Commonwealth Government announced that Australia would ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), people might have assumed it would be business as usual in Victoria…

For those of us working in this area, however, it was clear that OPCAT would require change. It introduces more rigorous standards for local inspections of places of detention by National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs). By opening detention to United Nations scrutiny, it also demands much closer attention to international standards for the treatment of detainees.”

Citing several so-called pilot OPCAT investigations undertaken from 2017 onwards, the author brings to life Steven Caruana’s key point that the OPCAT can be harnessed to improve and enhance existing oversight activities on the part of detention monitoring bodies.

In a further illuminating article, Rebecca Minty and Holly Fredericksen of the Office of the Inspector of Correctional Services in the Australian Capital Territory, underscore how the OPCAT text was used to inspire the drafting of the statute which brought into life this oversight body in 2017:  

“The legislation to establish the ACT OICS was developed to reflect the requirements and expectations around the establishment of a national preventative mechanism under the OPCAT. This resulted in the creation of a preventative focused independent statutory authority with all the powers and guarantees required in OPCAT, for example, the right to access to any place of detention at any time, the power to speak with detainees and staff, and the right to access documents including registers. Furthermore, when conducting an examination and review, the ICS Act requires that the review team include those with expertise relevant to the subject matter being reviewed, and all reports from examinations and reviews must be publicly tabled in the Legislative Assembly.”

Once again, we see the positive influence of the OPCAT instrument as an international point of reference for best detention monitoring practice.

In other articles more operational accounts are offered of other existing Australian detention monitoring bodies, including the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services in New South Wales, South Australian Ombudsman Office, and the Chief Inspector of the Queensland Corrective Services. All of these bodies may feasibly play a future role as part of Australia’s NPM. 

Down Under
Port Arthur (Tasmania) by Andrea Schaffer (2010).

Some Final Thoughts

With less than three years to put in place an NPM, the Australian OPCAT implementation process appears to be moving steadily forward. More impressively still, Australian civil society has succeeded in establishing an informal OPCAT network to coordinate their respective activities, to closely shadow as well as to feed into the on-going OPCAT consultation process, to which several of the above contributors belong. While no analogue civil society network currently exists in the Canadian context (bar this creaking website), this might be another best practice to be drawn from the Antipodean colleagues.

Though the task of re-purposing a sizeable number of existing monitoring bodies as the future NPM should not be taken lightly, several such oversight bodies in Australia are clearly using the OPCAT as central point of reference against which to gauge and recalibrate their existing inspection activities. In itself, this process of reflection appears to have been an important outcome of the OPCAT implementation process, despite there being much work ahead in this respect.

Yet none of the above would have been possible without a reasonable degree of willingness on the part of the Australian authorities to open up the domestic OPCAT process to discussion – crucially with civil society. Gloomily, as previously stated, such openness and inclusiveness has been almost entirely lacking in Canada, despite international recommendations and advice to this end.

This impenetrability and opacity aside, the OPCAT discussion process Down Under remains an invaluable benchmark of how such a national discussion might be conducted in future in Canada. It goes without saying that we wish our impressive Australian colleagues the very best of luck with these crucially important torture-prevention endeavours.


The next installment of the ICPA Network newsletter is scheduled for September 2019 with the featured country jurisdiction of Argentina and the featured topic of “Strengthening our Correctional Cornerstones: Rights, Dignity, Safety and Support.” Persons interested in contributing an article should contact the Office of the Correctional Investigator.

Read the current ICPA Network newsletter.

Read an earlier article based on the current newsletter titled Critical Expert Focus on Solitary Confinement.

Read ICPA Network newsletter No. 1.

Visit the Network’s webpage and see who is a member.

Make a request to join the Network by contacting Canadian Correctional Investigator, Ivan Zinger.

Listen to Steven Caruana talk about the Australian OPCAT process on C3R radio.

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