United Nations told that 'Aboriginal Deaths in Custody' increasing at alarming rate

Pro Bono Australia 13 November 2014

The deaths of Indigenous people in custody in Australia has worsened, Not for Profit representatives, including disability advocates, have told the United Nation's Committee Against Torture.

The current UN hearings in Geneva mark the 30th anniversary of the ratification of the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

The CEO of First Peoples Disability Network, Damian Griffis told the hearing there are many concerns for indigenous peoples in relation to Australia's compliance with the Treaty including the rate of incarceration of Indigenous people and secondly, the continuation of deaths of Indigenous people in custody.

"These matters are not new to the Committee, as it made recommendations on these issues following its last meeting in 2008. We can report to the Committee that since its last meeting, Australia's compliance has not improved. In fact, the situation has deteriorated," Griffis said.

"Australia's official statistics agency recently reported that the imprisonment rate of Indigenous people is now 1,958 per 100,000; fifteen times that of other Australians.

"This represents an 11.9 per cent increase since the Committee's last report in 2008. By contrast, over the same period, the imprisonment rate for other Australians declined slightly.

"There have also been deaths of Aboriginal people in custody, which highlight a continued failure in the Australian Government's duty of care to safeguard the right to health of people in detention."

Griffis told the hearing that members of Aboriginal communities have reported that the behaviors of State Government Agencies and private contractors within the justice system relating to First Peoples in custody continue unabated, showing the lessons of past deaths in custody has not been learned.

"This leaves whole families and communities with a lingering sense of injustice, which compounds and prolongs their grief. It is our concern that the lack of accountability of the Government Agencies responsible for the criminal justice system, and the increased use of private contractors are signs that the Australian Government seeks to outsource its duty of care as to avoid it," he said.

"Whilst we come here as an Indigenous organisation, we also come here as an organisation for the rights of people with disability. In noting that disability is a common attribute in many of the cases which have been used to illustrate the Australian Government's failure in its duty of care to people in detention, it is the untold story in justice.

"A number of jurisdictions have inadequate processes to administer the justice system to effectively process people with mental impairment in a timely manner, leaving them subject to indefinite detention in prison without conviction, sometimes for many years."

Griffis said disability is largely ignored in public policy; therefore Indigenous people with disability can experience "double discrimination" - judged once by stereotypes about their Indigeneity and judged twice by stereotypes about their disability.

"There are some jurisdictions in particular which have defects in their judicial administration systems. The consequence is that a significant number of Indigenous peoples are subjected to lengthy and unjustified spells of indefinite incarceration without conviction," he said.

"It is a lack of awareness of disability, which perpetuates institutional discrimination as a causal factor in the escalating rates of unwarranted detention of our Peoples, and the discharge of their rights whilst in detention.

"A disability-informed justice policy provides constructive means for aiding Australian compliance with the Treaty. We commend a disability-informed action plan for much-needed justice reforms, which if developed in genuine consultation with Indigenous people, could act as a catalyst for addressing Australia's current noncompliance and reforming the dire situation it is presently in."

However a representative of the Federal Government at the hearing said the Government is committed to improving the lives of and opportunities for Indigenous Australians.

"The Government has made significant changes to the way it manages the portfolio of Indigenous affairs, prioritising it at the highest levels of government, including by establishing the Prime Minister's Indigenous Advisory Council and working towards recognition of Indigenous peoples in Australia's Constitution," the Government spokesperson told the UN hearing.

"The Australian Government is working in close cooperation with states and territories to further the rights and interests of Australia's Indigenous population.

"The Australian Government has committed $4.8 billion in spending over four years to the Indigenous Advancement Strategy. This strategy, through a variety of programs, will support the two key priorities of getting children to school and adults to work.

"The Indigenous Advancement Strategy will also provide an opportunity for practical engagement with Indigenous Australians, service providers, business and government to make sure solutions are tailored to local needs, and targeted to the Government's priority areas.

"The Australian Government remains committed to the Closing the Gap targets and is currently considering ways to improve community safety and reduce Indigenous contact with the justice system.

"Reducing Indigenous disadvantage in other areas, such as the priority areas of education and employment, will have wider positive impacts on Indigenous communities throughout Australia."

Other Not for Profits to present reports to the UNI hearings included: Amnesty International, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, People With Disability Australia and Refugees Council of Australia.

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