Queensland Government Referred to UN Committee Against Torture

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Annastacia Palaszczuk

The Queensland Government has been reported to the United Nations Committee Against Torture over its decision to ‘suspend’ its Human Rights Act so that it can detain children in adult watch houses. 

Last week the Queensland Government suspended its Human Rights Act, removing all protections for children in detention. Since its “tough stance” and “state-wide crackdown” on youth crime began, complete with new legislation to target youth offenders, in particular re-offenders, detention centres around the state have become completely overloaded. 

This has led to children as young as 10 years old being held in police watch houses for days and weeks at a time. 

Vulnerable children held in adult watchhouses 

The practice has been the subject of legal challenges in recent months. To avoid any more legal headaches the government has ‘temporarily’ – at least until newly built youth detention centres are operational, which is expected to be in about 2026 – suspended its Human Rights Act. 

It is the second time in six months the state government has over-ridden Queensland’s Human Rights Act – the first, according to reports, occurred when it made breach of bail a criminal  offence for children.

As we know from the statistics this will affect indigenous youths the most – at least 65 per cent of the Queensland youth prison population on an average day are First Nations children. 

So now the First Peoples Disability Network has now made the bold decision to alert the UN’s specialist torture taskforce of the Queensland Government’s decision. 

Alerting the United Nations 

The Committee Against Torture is a group which regularly monitors countries to determine if they are meeting their obligations under the UN’s Convention Against Torture. 

Australia signed up to this treaty in 1989 although it does not have an ‘honourable’ and ‘exemplary’ track record with the UN as a direct result of its appalling treatment of refugees.

However, what’s concerning about the First Peoples Disability Network’s decision to report the Queensland Government to the UN  is that clearly it felt it had limited other options to protest the suspension of the Human Rights Act by the government and to do something to reinstate the rights of vulnerable children. 

In the aftermath of the suspension going through parliament, it has come to light that it was passed as “emergency legislation” which does not require the usual level of scrutiny legislation typically falls under when being passed into law.  

Even the Human Rights Commissioner Scott McDougall, was blindsided by the move. 

And now, everyone seems quite powerless to actually do anything about reversing it. Anastacia Palaszczuk is on holiday in Europe and is currently not answering questions. Media attention in the past day or so seems to have moved on from the seriousness of the issue at hand to whether or not the Premier should be available to answer media questions while she is on leave. 

Democracy, anyone? 

The fact of the matter is that this does not bode well for democracy. 

And as much as it sets a dangerous precedent, the most immediate concern here must be for the wellbeing of youths in detention who, in the view of Huma Rights Commissioner McDougall have “less protections than farm animals” in the absence of the Human Rights Act. 

No one is doubting the fact that Queensland appears to be in the grip of a youth crime wave, but evidence over many years has proven that locking kids up just doesn’t work to reduce crime. 

There has been considerable focus on re-offenders, however the studies also show that when youths are exposed to long periods of detention they become institutionalised to a life of crime and punishment. Many will end up in adult jails where the current (2019) recidivism rate is 45.6% within two years of release. 

Abuse of power 

Over 180 organisations and individuals representing Aboriginal, disability and human rights, legal groups and experts have written a letter to Ms Palaszczuk and other ministers, condemning the Queensland government’s move, but it too, is likely to fall on deaf ears.  

Time and again we see politicians making short term decisions to impress voters – but the Queensland government has gone to extraordinary lengths in suspending its Human Rights Act, and in doing so, severely violating vulnerable children’s rights. 

It’s a considerable abuse of power. It’s also disappointing that other leaders around the country have remained silent on the issue which makes them appear to be seemingly complicit.

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Sonia Hickey

Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist, and owner of 'Woman with Words'. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team. Sonia is the winner of the Mondaq Thought Leadership Awards, Spring 2022.

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