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Over 180 organisations condemn Queensland government's latest breach of Human Rights Act

Dechlan Brennan -

More than 180 human rights, Indigenous and legal groups have written an open letter to the Queensland government, condemning their decision to allow children to be housed in adult watch houses. 

The letter, addressed to Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, along with her deputy Steven Miles and police and corrective services minister Mark Ryan, argues the state government continues to “impose punitive and carceral solutions onto vulnerable and marginalised children".

“These changes in law undeniably violate children's rights and exacerbate the human rights emergency in Queensland's already broken youth justice system that disproportionately affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children,” it says.

“Although making up less than 5% of the child population in Queensland, First Nations children comprise 62.6% of the youth prison population.”

The outcry has led to Queensland Council of Social Service CEO Aimee McVeigh exclaiming dismay that the Queensland government is seemingly unable "design and implement policies that treat children humanely, keep all communities safe, and act in accordance with established democratic processes.”

Chief executive of Sisters Inside, Debbie Killroy OAM, led a protest at Queensland Parliament last Thursday, calling for an immediate repealing of the laws. 

“Children lives must never be used as political pawns,” she said.

“Their lives are not not a game where adults in power can use them to perpetrate harm.” 

The watch house amendments, which were rushed through Queensland parliament last Thursday and resulted in a provision to override the state's Human Rights Act, had no oversight from any independent parliamentary committee. 

Queensland is the only state without an upper house in parliament and therefore does not see the same parliamentary scrutiny over legislation. 

The open letter notes that the Palaszczuk government has a history of defiance and contempt of UN protocols. 

“In 2022, it blocked the UN torture prevention body from visiting places where people are detained. It now wishes to exclude indefinite detention of children by police from human rights oversight. These are the places where human rights safeguards are needed most.”

It goes on to say: “The Queensland Government’s actions are of such dire concern that our colleagues at the First Peoples Disability Network have taken the step of notifying the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT).”

"This situation has resulted in the systematic denial and breach of the human rights of children in custody, and failure to hold Australia accountable to our UN commitments. Overwhelmingly it is First Nations children and children with disabilities who are experiencing this shocking abusive treatment."

Earlier this year, a Queensland magistrate expressed concern about children in watch houses where “adult detainees are often drunk, abusive, psychotic or suicidal”.

A report by the Queensland Family and Child Commission last year found Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children had been imprisoned in Queensland watch houses for up to 35 days. 

Documented concerns included a lack of appropriate facilities for girls, lack of access to showers and clean clothes. 

Labor MPs who were sceptical of the legislative amendments last week were told that it was necessary in order to avoid a legal challenge that could see children transferred out of police custody and into detention centres - many of which are now overcrowded. 

“It would have meant every child went to the youth detention centres, and clearly that is a capacity issue, which we had not foreseen,” the youth justice minister, Di Farmer, said.

On Tuesday it was reported that the Labor government ignored more than 20 warnings that its youth justice policies would cause overloading on the state’s detention centres and police watch houses. 

Despite Farmer saying they had not foreseen overcrowding, when the presumption in favour of bail for some children was passed in 2021, many groups argued in submissions that it would lead to a choking of the detention centres, as well as leading to  recidivism and “increase the risk of reoffending.”

The Human Rights Law Centre said that the decision in recent days had “failed children.” 

“It makes a mockery of the Government’s stated commitment to Queenslanders’ human rights.The Government must urgently stop warehousing children in unsafe police cells, and focus on reducing the number of children entering the legal system in the first place,” HRLC CEO Caitlin Reiger said. 

The 2019 youth justice strategy - still formal government policy - argues that its focus is “keeping children out of custody” and to “reduce re-offending.” Minister Ryan has seemingly gone against this police in recent days, flaunting the tough on crime stance of his government. 

“This government makes no apology for our tough stance on youth crime,” Ryan said last week. “As a result of our strong laws, more young offenders are in custody for longer periods of time and this is impacting youth detention capacity.”

Change the Record - an Indigenous led coalition of legal, health and family violence experts -  said that the legislation shows “blatant disregard for several international laws and will have swift and severe detrimental impacts for children, particularly First Nations children.

“The new amendments, allowing children as young as 10 to be held indefinitely within small, unhygienic cells, with no access to sunlight or fresh air, directly breaches the Beijing Rules, an international legal instrument that stipulates the minimum conditions needed to detain small children,” it said in a statement. 

Change the Record’s national director, Maggie Munn, said Indigenous communities, along with human rights groups and the Australian social sector were “rightly outraged” by the actions of the Palaszczuk government, labelling Labor’s decision as a “complete contempt for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.”

“At multiple junctures the government had options available to help and support our kids, but instead they have opted for a punitive path that has led to the crisis we are currently seeing in Queensland,” Munn said. 

“The Palaszczuk government has demonstrated a dangerous and prolonged track record for disregarding parliamentary process and violating human rights that is unprecedented in Australia. All Australians, regardless of where you live, should be alarmed by this government’s actions that undermine our fundamental human rights.”

Signatories of the letter have called on the government to immediately repeal the State Youth Justice Act, which they say has disproportionately targeted First Nations children since its implementation in 2021. Amendments to this, including the latest watch house laws and the bail laws that were introduced in March, both override the state’s Human Rights Act. 

The signatories include Hannah McGlade; Associate Professor at Curtin Law School and a member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, Amnesty International Australia, the Faculty of Law and Justice at the University of Sydney and Mark Rallings; the former Commissioner of Queensland Corrective Services.

They have asked for the state to have independent oversight over all youth detention facilities - including watch houses, prisons and alternative places of detention - and for investment to be targeted at alternatives to incarceration that are community-led and offer child and family. support. 

Youth Advocacy Centre chief executive Katherine Hayes said the government needs to focus on rehabilitation, not punishment. 

“What is most shocking in the overriding of the Human Rights Act for the second time is that it’s for Queensland's most vulnerable children,” she told National Indigenous Times. 

“As the government is so determined to have detention as their focus, it needs to provide proper rehabilitation and access to education and other services. That was the children leave detention with a chance of establishing a productive life. At the moment they are coming out angrier than when they went in.”

Killroy agrees, arguing that the decision was made for Labor's "political future, not community safety.”

"The legislation that allows the prolonged caging of children in watch houses and adult prisons will ensure harm for all the children and the community for generations to come," she said.

McVeigh said the changes to legislation are “appalling” and only designed to cover up the failings of the government’s protection of children and communities in Queensland. 

“Instead of doing what works – working with the community to provide intensive support and services to young children and families to deal with the root cause of problematic behaviour – they are locking up children as young as 10 years old,” she said in a statement. 

State Greens MP Michael Berkman told National Indigenous Times it was "outrageous and heartbreaking" the disregard Labor was showing to vulnerable children.

“The purpose of the Human Rights Act is to protect children from the specific harm that’s known to occur if they are placed in the same watch houses and prison facilities as adults," he said.

“Not only is this cruel and undemocratic, but the most likely outcome of the laws is that more children will be retraumatised in custody, have less access to rehabilitative services, and be more likely to reoffend - including more seriously - upon release."

The signatories have also asked the government for assurances that detention practices in Queensland adhere to the various United Nations Conventions; including the Rights of the Child, Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Convention Against Torture and Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice.

National Indigenous Times has contacted the Police minister for comment. 

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