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Governments must strengthen independent detention oversight to protect Aboriginal people

Guest Author -

What governments choose to allocate resources to in their budgets tells you what really matters to them.

Despite making a commitment to the UN to establish independent detention oversight, governments have invested almost no time or money to fulfil their obligation.

In contrast, in December last year, the Victorian Government announced that it would deliver $214 million over five years, and $40.5 million ongoing, for all frontline police officers and protective services officers (PSOs) to have tasers.

The media release proudly proclaimed that "[t]his funding builds on the Victorian Government's record $3.8 billion investment in police."

In their previous 18-19 budget the Victorian Government invested $689.5 million to build a new 700 bed maximum security men's prison, which followed their record investment to recruit 3,135 extra police and introduce stricter sentencing and bail laws.

Aboriginal communities in Victoria are over-policed and over-incarcerated.

And yet the Victorian Government continues to pour public money into policing, while failing to address systemic racism within the police force, and without strengthening protections against police abuses of power and use of excessive force.

Aboriginal people continue to die in police custody, more than thirty years on from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC).

It is horrific that the Victorian and Commonwealth Governments have neglected to implement RCIADIC's recommendations, and that they are on track to breach their international obligation to take proactive steps to prevent the torture and ill-treatment of Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people in custody.

This month we will mark four years since Australia voluntarily signed up to establishing independent detention oversight bodies, under the UN torture prevention instrument, OPCAT (the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment).

In Victoria there has been seemingly no progress in establishing or designating the Victorian detention oversight body (called the National Preventive Mechanism, or NPM).

Actually, there is the Andrews Government's allocation of $500k over four years for OPCAT implementation and operationalisation â€" pocket change compared to the billions spent on police and prisons despite increasing deaths in custody.

This is supplemented by the Commonwealth Government's vague and underwhelming commitment, under the Closing the Gap Implementation Plan, of one-off funding for OPCAT implementation.

The reality is that both the Commonwealth and State Governments share the blame for what is now inevitable - Victoria will miss the deadline to implement independent detention oversight.

Whether it is four years or thirty years, governments continually delay progress, and it is Aboriginal people in police cells, prisons and youth prisons who pay the price.

Don't be fooled by anyone who might tell you that Australia and Victoria already have robust detention safeguards, and that there is no need to fund proper, culturally appropriate OPCAT implementation.

An IBAC report in June 2021 highlighted corruption within Victoria's prison system. Existing oversight mechanisms are retrospective and they have failed to protect the human rights of

people in detention.

OPCAT is a unique opportunity to prevent the torture and ill-treatment of Aboriginal people in custody.

Implementing independent detention oversight without consulting Aboriginal communities and organisations, adequate funding and legislation, would ignore best practice.

It would disregard cautions from experts, including the Association for the Prevention of Torture, to ensure that detention oversight does not simply continue "business as usual" subsequent to OPCAT ratification.

With a missed deadline and a failure to meet obligations to the UN and international community, the Victorian Government must immediately begin the hard work to set up effective independent detention oversight.

Oversight must be culturally appropriate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, the most incarcerated people in the world.

Other Australian states have drafted legislation or designated existing bodies for independent detention oversight. While there is still much work to be done in those states, it shows the Victorian Government as a laggard on progressive reforms of the justice system.

It really does beg the question â€" can Victoria continue to call itself progressive, as it falls behind other states and territories on an issue as critical as preventing the torture of some of the most vulnerable members of our community?

Does a progressive government recklessly charge ahead with expanding police and prisons, while refusing to budge on improving transparency and accountability of these very same detaining authorities?

Does a progressive government ignore human rights obligations by squabbling over who is going to foot the bill for additional safeguards to protect the Aboriginal people whom it detains?

Do we want to wait for another 500 Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people to die in custody before we act?

We would say the answer to those questions is a resounding no.

But don't think for a moment that lets the Commonwealth Government off the hook, either. Everyone needs to do better.

By Nerita Waight and Andreea Lachsz

Nerita Waight is a Yorta Yorta woman and the CEO of VALS.Â

Andreea Lachsz is Head of Policy, Communications and Strategy at VALS.Â


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