Ill treatment in detention

The Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) is an international human rights agreement that New Zealand signed up to in 2007.  It is designed to help ensure that New Zealand meets its obligations under international law to prevent any form of torture or ill treatment of people who are detained by the State. Unlike other human rights treaty processes that deal with violations of rights after the fact, the OPCAT is primarily concerned with preventing violations.

How OPCAT works

Monitoring is done through a system of regular visits to all places where people are deprived of their liberty.  This includes prisons, police cells, military detention, immigration centres, health facilities, or child and youth residences.

The visits are carried out by independent bodies – called National Preventive Mechanisms (NPMs) – that examine the conditions and treatment in those places to see how well human rights standards are being met. They identify any improvements that are required or problems that need to be addressed, and make recommendations aimed at strengthening protections, improving treatment and conditions, and preventing torture or ill treatment.  The visits are focused on preventing human rights breaches and are separate from complaints processes.

National Preventive Mechanisms

In New Zealand, the NPMs are:

  • the Ombudsman: prisons and those in the custody of the Department of Corrections, health & disability places of detention including privately run aged care facilities, Immigration premises, children & young persons residences, Public Protection Order residences, court facilities
  • the Independent Police Conduct Authority: police custody including court facilities
  • the Children’s Commissioner: children & young persons’ residences
  • the Inspector of Service Penal Establishments: Defence Force.

The Human Rights Commission has a coordination role as the Central NPM with responsibilities for coordination, reports, systemic issues and liaison with the UN.

Each organisation has been designated with monitoring responsibilities for specific areas – as detailed above. The NPMs are each independent of government, and of the agencies that they monitor.

OPCAT internationally

At the international level, the UN Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture has also been established under OPCAT.  The UN Subcommittee is an international body of experts that may visit each country that has signed up to OPCAT.  The UN Subcommittee visits detention facilities and makes recommendations to the Government.

Although the title of OPCAT refers to “torture”, it deals with all the human rights that apply to people in detention. It is aimed at strengthening protections and improving conditions as a way of preventing torture and ill treatment from occurring.

Although it is called an “optional protocol”, once a country signs up – as New Zealand has done – then it must comply.

Legal requirements are set out in the Crimes of Torture Act 1989 – including powers of access to places, people and information, confidentiality and reporting requirements.

He Ara Tika – A Pathway Forward Report

In He Ara Tika – A Pathway Forward report that looks at the role of the Optional Protocol to the Convention of Torture (OPCAT) in the monitoring of aged care facilities and disability residences, places in which residents often have physical and mental vulnerabilities.

While this report focuses on the New Zealand situation, the principles and the analysis it undertakes will be a useful resource for other jurisdictions.

The report was prepared with New Zealand’s National Preventative Mechanisms, the Association for the Prevention of Torture and the Asia Pacific Forum of Human Rights Organisations.

He Ara Tika – A Pathway Forward was assisted in its development by The Torture Prevention Ambassadors’ Project, the report of which can be read here.

OPCAT Reports

Association for the Prevention of Torture Reports 

Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Other information

New Zealand-based Resources 

International Resources

Further OPCAT information

'Monitoring places of detention' - Speak Up - Kōrerotia  

Human Rights specialist, Sally Carlton, interviews Jacki Jones - Chief Inspector Crimes of Torture Act, Office of the Ombudsman and Jolyon White, from the Howard League for the HRC podcast 'Speak Up - Kōrerotia'



Monitoring Places of Detention 2016

2016 Annual report of activities under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT)


Monitoring Places of Detention 2015

2015 Annual report of activities under the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT)