Monitoring places of detention – OPCAT

The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT)

OPCAT is an international treaty designed to strengthen protections for people in situations where they are deprived of their liberty and potentially vulnerable to mistreatment or abuse.

OPCAT requires signatory states to establish a system of regular preventive visits to places of detention by independent bodies known as National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs). It also requires that signatories accept visits from the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (SPT).

The Australian Government ratified OPCAT in December 2017 and opted to postpone its obligation to establish an NPM until January 2022.

Latest News on OPCAT:

  • On 29 March 2022, our Office presented to the Future Justice and Corrections Summit in Sydney with a speech titled “Developments in OPCAT implementation in Australia, and the importance of the preventive mandate”. A copy of the speech is here.
  • On 25 March 2022, the NPM Coordinator met with counterparts from the South African Human Rights Commission, which both inspects places of detention under OPCAT and will coordinate NPMs in South Africa. We discussed various issues relating to managing early stages of OPCAT implementation in our respective countries. Our Office’s tweet about the discussion is here.
  • On 8 March 2022, our Office met with Australia’s NPM Network, bringing members together to discuss OPCAT implementation. A communiqué from the meeting is here.
  • On 1 March 2022, our Office updated its website to allow interested stakeholders, and the public more broadly, to directly communicate with us about OPCAT-related matters – through a dedicated ‘webform’. This will support our Office’s engagement on OPCAT issues, allowing us to track engagement with stakeholders and identify common themes among any issues raised with us. The webform can be accessed by clicking on the blue “Make a complaint” button at the top of this page.
  • On 16 February 2022, the NPM Coordinator met with representatives from the Association for the Prevention of Torture, a specialist international NGO which provides advice and expertise on detention monitoring and torture prevention. We discussed the work for the Office in its NPM Coordinator role, and strategies for maximising impact as Australia’s NPM Network develops. Our Office’s tweet about the meeting is here.
  • On 7 February 2022, the Tasmanian Government announced that Mr Richard Connock has been appointed as Tasmanian NPM. Mr Connock is currently also appointed as the Tasmanian Ombudsman, Health Complaints Commissioner, Custodial Inspector, Principal Official Visitor and Coordinator of the Official Visitors Scheme. The Tasmanian Government’s media release on the announcement can be found here.
  • On 27 January 2022, the NPM Coordinator met with counterparts from the United Kingdom’s NPM Secretariat and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (England and Wales), to discuss OPCAT and the role of a coordinating body. The UK NPM tweeted about the discussion here.
  • On 20 January 2022, the NPM Coordinator met with counterparts from the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, to learn from their role as New Zealand’s Central NPM and their approaches to coordinating multiple NPMs under OPCAT. Our Office’s tweet about the meeting is here.
  • On 20 January 2022, the ACT Government announced that the ACT NPM would be formed by three independent bodies: the ACT Inspector of Correctional Services, the ACT Human Rights Commission, and the ACT Ombudsman. The ACT Government’s media release on the announcement can be found here.

Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture (SPT)

The SPT consists of 25 independent and impartial experts who have a threefold mandate to visit places of detention, provide advice to and assist respective governments and NPMs regarding NPM establishment and function, and co-operate with other international, regional and national like‑minded organisations.

The Australian Government’s decision to delay establishing its NPM does not extend to in-country visits by the SPT which may take place at any time.

The Office continues to engage with the United Nations Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture (SPT). The SPT has announced that the priority states to be visited in 2022 are Argentina, Ecuador, Lebanon, Turkey and Tunisia. The SPT noted that more visits for 2022 will be announced in due course. The SPT has also signalled changes in how it engages with national preventive mechanisms during country visits. As part of these changes, the SPT will no longer request that its country reports be made public.

Further information about the SPT can be found here.

National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs)

Given Australia’s federated system of government, the Commonwealth and each state and territory government is required to nominate an NPM to monitor places of detention within their respective jurisdiction. As of April 2022, the following have been announced as NPMs:

Commonwealth Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman

Western Australia Ombudsman Western Australia (for mental health and other secure facilities),
Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services (WA) (for justice-related facilities including police lock ups)

Northern Territory Office of the Ombudsman NT (as interim Coordinating NPM)

Australian Capital Territory ACT Inspector of Correctional Services, ACT Human Rights Commission, ACT Ombudsman (multi-body NPM)

Tasmania Mr Richard Connock (concurrently the Tasmanian Ombudsman and Custodial Inspector)

The Office’s role under OPCAT

Coordinating Australia’s NPM Network

In July 2018 the Australian Government announced it had nominated the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman (the Office) as the NPM Coordinator. In this role, the Office is tasked with coordinating the Australian NPM Network, comprising the Commonwealth, state and territory inspecting bodies nominated by their governments as NPMs. This may include collecting information, facilitating information sharing and collaboration, providing secretariat support and preparing consolidated reports about NPM activities.

The Office is working with the Attorney-General’s Department (AGD), which has overall responsibility for the implementation of OPCAT in Australia, to engage with state and territory governments and oversight bodies to foster progress towards implementation of the Australian NPM Network.

On 8 March 2022, the Office convened the first meeting of Australia’s NPM Network, bringing members together to discuss OPCAT implementation. A communiqué from the meeting is here.

Monitoring places of detention under the control of the Commonwealth

In July 2018, the Australian Government announced the Office as the NPM for places of detention under the control of the Commonwealth (the Commonwealth NPM). This includes places of immigration detention and places of detention under the control of the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Defence Force.

Our role is to monitor the treatment of people and the conditions of their detention and make recommendations for improvement. We have full and free access to detention facilities, which means we can choose which places we want to visit and when, and the people we want to interview.

Monitoring places of detention under the control of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT)

In January 2022, the ACT Government announced the ACT Ombudsman as one part of the multi-body NPM for places of detention under the control of the ACT (the ACT NPM), alongside the ACT Inspector of Correctional Services and the ACT Human Rights Commission.

Reports about OPCAT

Australia’s implementation of OPCAT

Ombudsman’s OPCAT readiness report

In September 2019 the Office published a report about Australia’s readiness to implement OPCAT and the need to nominate Commonwealth, state and territory NPMs.

The report relied on information provided by existing inspection and oversight bodies to determine the extent to which they, in accordance with OPCAT:

  • are independent of the entity they inspect/oversee
  • have full access to people, places and records in detention facilities
  • can visit facilities announced or unannounced
  • are free to report publicly and to make recommendations
  • are free to allocate their resources as they see fit, and
  • visit facilities regularly, rather than in response to a complaint, as part of an investigation.

The report highlighted that, while there are existing inspection and oversight bodies in all jurisdictions, there are gaps in oversight, scope, resourcing and in some instances a lack of genuine independence in the inspecting bodies in various jurisdictions. The report serves as a baseline against which Australia may wish to track its progress over time.

Australian Human Rights Commission ‘Implementing OPCAT in Australia’ report 2020

In June 2020 the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) published a report on implementing OPCAT in Australia. The Commission noted that greater momentum is needed towards implementation and recommended the NPM Network be established as soon as possible and in a way that ensures all places of detention are subject to independent oversight.

The Office notes the AHRC’s report and specific recommendations. We will work with the AGD and the Australian NPM Network to consider if and how these recommendations might be implemented.

Monitoring activities

Under OPCAT, NPMs are expected to provide regular public reporting about their monitoring activities, observations and recommendations to address risks of ill treatment of people in places of detention.

Since 2019, the Office has published reports about its activities to monitor immigration detention:

In July 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Office issued a public statement about the Department of Home Affairs’ arrangements for preventing and managing COVID-19 in the immigration detention network.

OPCAT Advisory Group

The Office welcomes receiving information and research about issues that affect people deprived of their liberty. While the Office’s independence is key to its monitoring function under OPCAT, we value the role of civil society in informing our approach.

In early 2020, the Commonwealth Ombudsman established a civil society advisory group to provide expert advice and guidance to his Office about its functions and responsibilities as an NPM and as the Coordinator of the Australian NPM Network. The Advisory Group’s Terms of Reference are available here.

The Advisory Group’s first meeting was on 3 March 2020 and meetings take place three times each year. From 2021, the Advisory Group agreed to publish a Communique summarising its discussions after each meeting.

The Advisory Group Communique No 1 – 21 April 2021 is available here.

The Advisory Group Communique No 2 – 28 July 2021 is available here

The Advisory Group Communique No 3 – 30 November 2021 is available here.

The next Advisory Group meeting is likely to be held in May 2022.

The Advisory Group is chaired by the Commonwealth Ombudsman and comprises the following members:

  • Mr Paris Aristotle AO – CEO, Foundation House
  • Professor Neil Morgan – Former Inspector of Custodial Services (Western Australia)
  • Professor Bronwyn Naylor – RMIT University; co-founder of the Australian OPCAT Network.

The Ombudsman may also invite – as guests or permanent members – representatives to advise on issues affecting vulnerable groups including children, people with disability, people of diverse gender and/or sexuality, and the aged. The ongoing operation and membership of the OAG will be a matter for consideration by the new Commonwealth Ombudsman, once appointed.

The Ombudsman also consults other civil society stakeholders and continues to build and maintain ongoing dialogue with a wide variety of interested representatives from civil society beyond the OAG.

Other information and resources

The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Speeches by the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman:

Workshops and webinars:

Australian resources

New Zealand resources:

OPCAT internationally:

Australian legislation:

Contacting us on OPCAT matters

If you wish to contact us on OPCAT matters, you can do so by clicking on the blue “Make a complaint” button at the top of this page and selecting “Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT)”. You can use this to provide us with information, or make enquiries, on:

  • places of detention under the control of the Commonwealth (Commonwealth NPM)
  • detention monitoring bodies across Australia (NPM Coordinator)
  • the OPCAT Advisory Group (OAG).

Please note that while information provided and enquiries made will be considered or referred as relevant, we may not necessarily respond to you.