Refugee Council of Australia
Michelle Bachelet in front of blue UN logo background

Refugees and international law


The Australian government announced in February 2017 that it would ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT), a vital addition to the Convention Against Torture (CAT).

What is OPCAT?

OPCAT is an international agreement aimed at preventing torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, building on the Convention Against Torture with the goal of helping States meet their obligations under that Convention. The primary goal of OPCAT is to supplement the CAT in order to prevent the mistreatment of people in detention, establishing an international inspections system for places of detention. Parties that ratify OPCAT must agree to international inspections of places of detention by the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT). They must also establish independent National Preventative Mechanisms (NPM) in order to conduct inspections of all places of detention, including prisons, juvenile detention, local and offshore immigration detention facilities and wherever people are systematically deprived of their liberty. The OPCAT was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in New York on 18 December 2002, entering into force on 22 June 2006. As of October 2016, the Protocol had 75 signatories and 83 parties. Australia is already a party to the CAT and has been a signatory to the OPCAT since 19 May 2009, but has now become the latest country to also ratify the convention.

What does this mean for refugees and people seeking asylum?

The ratification of the OPCAT will have significant ramifications for those held in Australian detention facilities, particularly for refugees and people seeking asylum who are being detained by the Australian government. Now that Australia will become a party to the OPCAT, it is required to establish a National Preventative Mechanism, a system of inspections which will work on a largely state-based or national level in order to monitor all places of detention within Australia. The NPM, alongside the SPT, will work to ensure Australia upholds its commitment to eradicate the use of torture through establishing a monitoring process that is both comprehensive and transparent.

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