OPCAT is the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It is an international protocol to assist countries to comply with the Convention against Torture (CAT), to which Australia is a signatory.
When countries sign and ratify OPCAT they are obligated to implement measures that help reduce instances and risk of torture and ill-treatment of people who are deprived of their liberty.
The Australian Government ratified OPCAT on 21 December 2017 and in doing so, agreed to be bound by the optional protocol and commit to meeting its obligations under the protocol.
How does OPCAT work?
OPCAT introduces a preventive monitoring model and at a national level through National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) and at an international level through the Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT).
The NPMs and SPT meet the objective of OPCAT by establishing a system of regular visits to places where people are deprived of their liberty to ensure basic rights are met. Compliance with OPCAT requires Australia to establish an NPM and ensures its effective functioning.
What is a National Preventive Mechanism?
An NPM is an independent, domestic visiting body or bodies. There is no one model for an NPM. Countries that ratify OPCAT are encouraged to design and tailor an NPM model that suits their local context or impacted groups.
The NPM model adopted in Australia is yet to be entirely settled but will essentially be a multi-body network comprised largely of existing independent officers or bodies.
The Australian NPM network is coordinated by the Commonwealth Ombudsman and consists of nominated state and territory NPM entities.
More information on the Australian NPM network can be found here.
What is the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture?
The Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT) is an international treaty body established under OPCAT with a mandate to visit places of detention and make recommendations to signatory countries regarding the treatment and protection of people deprived of liberty.
OPCAT sets out the responsibilities of the SPT's mandate as preventive and proactive. The SPT is made up of 25 individuals of independent and impartial capacity representing diverse nationalities, gender and expertise. Full details about the Subcommittee can be found here.
To function effectively, the SPT operates with unrestricted access to all places of detention, all relevant information relating to the treatment of people in detention, and ability to interview detained persons and gather any other relevant information it considers necessary to fulfilling its mandate.
The advisory function of the SPT is to generate cooperation and dialogue with NPMs and governments to assist them with:
- Understanding human rights law and applicability
- Training in international best practice standards for visits
- Enhancing approaches of State parties to have a proactive and sustained commitment to protecting the rights of detained persons from torture and/or ill-treatment.
The SPT made its first visit to Australia in October 2022 to visit places of detention and examine the treatment of people held there. The visit was suspended when the SPT were denied access to places of detention and access to information. Ultimately the SPT terminated the visit in February 2023 as the Australian Government did not provide the assurances required for the SPT to resume its visits and execute it functions. The Australian NPM Network released the following statements following the suspension and termination of the visit.