For Australia’s UN appointment to have credibility, we need lasting reconciliation with our First Peoples

By Helen Szoke, Chief Executive of Oxfam Australia

Now that the Australian Government has been elected to the United Nations body tasked with protecting human rights, it must also prepare to face tough questions about a glaring hypocrisy in its own backyard.

September 13 marked 10 years since 144 countries adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — a document that sets a transformative program for engaging with Indigenous peoples and respecting their dignity and rights.

The Australian Government became one of only four UN members to vote against the Declaration in 2007, but two years later it came on board to join the international community to affirm the aspirations of all Indigenous peoples.

Albeit belated, the move to adopt the declaration was touted as a chance for “re-setting the relationship” with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

But as an elected-member of the high-level UN Human Rights Council, Australia’s shameful track record on respecting the rights of our nation’s First Peoples and addressing their poverty cannot be ignored.

Far too many Indigenous Australians continue to face stark inequality, and they remain a marginalised and impoverished minority.

Our Constitution still fails to recognise our First Peoples and nor has any Australian government signed a Treaty with them. Indigenous children are 15 times over-represented in detention centres, and the child mortality rate is double the national average. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples still die at least 10 years younger than non-Indigenous Australians.

According to Oxfam analysis, more than one in five Indigenous households are in Australia’s poorest 10 percent of households — more than twice the rest of Australia.

The failure of successive governments to listen to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is at the heart of this entrenched disadvantage.

Over the years, countless reports from inquiries, reviews and royal commissions have gathered dust on shelves. These reports call time and time again for better resourcing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations and services, and for Indigenous Australians to be directly involved in decisions about matters that affect them — to respect the right of self-determination.

This shameful disadvantage cannot be separated from Australia’s election to the Human Rights Council.

Taking its seat on 1 January 2018, the Australian Government has announced its term, which will run until 2021, will focus on five pillars: gender equality, freedom of expression, good governance, the rights of indigenous peoples, and national human rights institutions.

While opinions will vary on Australia’s progress on each of these pillars, it’s a fact that the status and socio-economic wellbeing of Indigenous Australians is well behind that other comparable countries.

The Government has acknowledged that it has much work to do on this issue and says it is committed to using human rights mechanisms to achieve this. But this is surely an opportunity for the Government to look to the UN Declaration as a benchmark to achieve lasting advancement and reconciliation with Australia’s First Peoples.

As the chief executive of an organisation that takes a rights-based approach to development, I believe it is imperative that governments pay much closer attention to the Declaration when framing Indigenous policy.

At a time when First Australians are calling for a national voice, and for a Treaty, the Declaration provides a framework for understanding the fundamental importance of these proposals, and how they might work in a holistic way.

An analysis of the Declaration developed by the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and the Human Rights Commission divides the Declaration’s 46 articles into several key themes, dealing with:

  • The right to self-determination and self-government
  • Protection of language, culture and spiritual identity
  • The right to the same standard of education, health care and employment as other Australians
  • The right to full participation and consent in decisions that affect traditional lands, including the right to redress

Significantly, the Declaration also calls on governments to achieve these ends through legislation, in consultation with Aboriginal people. This could mean, for example, that the Native Title Act, a fundamentally important law for Indigenous people, should be amended so that it reflects the Declaration’s principle of free, prior and informed consent.

However, the provisions in the Declaration have not been legislated by the Australian Parliament, which means that our support for the Declaration is more nominal than real.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, says she finds Australia’s lack of respect for the rights of Indigenous people “alarming”, especially the imprisonment of Aboriginal children for minor or non-violent offences.

In a new report based on a visit here earlier this year, she wrote:

“While Australia has adopted numerous policies aiming to address the socioeconomic disadvantage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the failure to respect their rights to self-determination and to full and effective participation is alarming.”

She said the “compounded effect” of Indigenous policy was the failure to deliver on the targets in the areas of health, education and employment in the Closing the Gap strategy, while the Government had “contributed to aggravating the escalating incarceration and child removal rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders”.

Ms Tauli-Corpuz, like her predecessor Professor James Anaya, has called on the government to put the Declaration into law. She wrote that a “more comprehensive human rights legislative framework would provide stronger protection for the rights of indigenous peoples”.

These issues are very much on the agenda of the Indigenous members of Parliament, who see UNDRIP as a long-term guide for government in this area.

Australia’s election to the Human Rights Council is welcome, and has the potential to put it at the forefront of promoting and protecting human rights around the globe. But for Australia’s appointment to have any credibility, the Government should address the significant issues confronting our First Peoples.