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  • Barbed wire fences surround the Don Dale Youth Detention Center located near Darwin in the Northern Territory, Australia, July 27, 2016.

    Barbed wire fences surround the Don Dale Youth Detention Center located near Darwin in the Northern Territory, Australia, July 27, 2016. | Photo: Reuters

Published 29 July 2016

The royal commision has until next year to report on the abuses within the youth detention system. 

The Australian federal government has launched a Royal Commission following recently released footage of abuses of indigenous youth in Australian youth detention centers, which a United Nations official said Thursday could violate international torture conventions.

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"I do think that it's a very worrisome development that can amount to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment under any circumstance," Juan Mendez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, told Radio National Australia.

The royal commission is the highest form of commision in the country and will have until March 31, 2017, to investigate some of the failings of the youth detention system, including whether its oversights and safeguards were appropriate and if laws and human rights were breached in the treatment of the detainees.

Importantly, the terms of reference also include culture within the youth detention system, which could include racism within the system, said Royal Commissioner Brian Martin.

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The commision follows an investigative report by ABC’s Four Corners which uncovered disturbing footage of prison guards physically abusing Indigenous boys at detention facilities in Alice Springs and Don Dale detention facilities in the Northern Territory.

The footage shows prison guards kicking, punching and using tear gas on Indigenous boys. One photo shows a teenager tied to a chair with a hood, similar to torture practices carried out by the U.S. at its prison in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.

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Representatives from Four Corners said their report was presented to the government in 2012 but was not released publicly until last week.

The incidents highlight the inherent disadvantages faced by Indigenous Australians and the over-representation of Indigenous youth in state detention.

Indigenous Australians make up around 2 percent of the population but account for 27 percent of the national prison population, according to 2015 figures from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. That means per capita Indigenous incarceration rates are even higher than for Black people in the U.S.

In the last five years there has also been an increase in the number of Indigenous deaths in custody, according to a review by the Australian Institute of Criminology. Between 2008 and 2011, the review found that 55 Indigenous Australians died in custody, often due to health problems that were neglected by staff.

Indigenous and opposition leaders are concerned that the royal commission so far has not been in consultation with the Indigenous community. “I would certainly say that it would be a good idea to consider the appointment of an additional commissioner, an Aboriginal commissioner to this royal commission," acting labor leader Tanya Plibersek was quoted as saying by ABC Australia.

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