Human Rights or Indigenous Rights?

Australian Aboriginal art
Image by esther1721 from Pixabay

If United Nations Special Rapporteur, James Anaya, did not understand why the “lucky country’s” indigenous people live in third world squalor and poverty he does now. He just needed to listen to the Government and Opposition responses to his August 27 statement on Australia’s treatment of indigenous people (1).

Here is Opposition Indigenous Affairs spokesman, Tony Abbott: “I think this is the kind of nonsense we are used to from these armchair critics.” (2)

And former Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough: “I get very annoyed when I hear people pontificating about human rights when today there will be children sitting out there in abject squalor with diseases they don’t have to have, inadequate education, poor nutrition and poor access to health and we have some nicety about human rights legislation.” (2)

And Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin: “… When it comes to human rights, the most important human right is the need to protect the lives of the most vulnerable, particularly children, and for them to have a safe and happy life, and a safe and happy family to grow up in. These are the rights that I think need to be balanced against other human rights.” (2)

The diversionary rhetoric used by Brough and Macklin implies that to criticise the Intervention is to condone the sexual abuse of children and the squalid living conditions of indigenous Australians. It also implies the absurdity that achieving standards of education, health care, employment, housing, police protection, personal safety, opportunity and freedoms taken for granted by other citizens – in other words, indigenous rights – is not possible whilst upholding human rights, as if the two issues were not one and the same!

Implicit in these comments, too, is the notion that Professor Anaya knows nothing, should say nothing unless he can say something nice, and that the UN should keep its nose out of our business … thank you very much!

Actually the professor did say a few nice things. He balanced his criticism with credit where credit is due and his criticism was reasonable, justified and fair.

Speaking of the Government’s initiatives, particularly the Northern Territory Emergency Response, he expressed concern that its income management regime, imposition of compulsory leases, and community-wide bans on alcohol consumption and pornography “ … overtly discriminate against aboriginal peoples, infringe their right of self-determination and stigmatize already stigmatized communities.

“… Any such measure must be devised and carried out with due regard of the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination and to be free from racial discrimination and indignity.

“ … Any special measure that infringes on the basic rights of indigenous peoples must be narrowly tailored, proportional, and necessary to achieve the legitimate objectives being pursued. In my view, the Northern Territory Emergency Response is not.

“… As currently configured and carried out, the Emergency Response is incompatible with Australia’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, treaties to which Australia is a party, as well as incompatible with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Australia has affirmed its support.”

These are obviously the words of someone who has got a handle on the issues, sticks to the facts and expresses his conclusions in a polite and diplomatic manner. In contrast, Abbott’s and Brough’s insults deserve no further comment, except to say they are reminiscent of John Howard’s jingoism at the height of the “Tampa” disgrace.

Abbott, Brough and Macklin seem to overlook the fact that the “top down” Intervention embodies the same paternalism, racism, discrimination, stigmatisation and lack of respect that has brought indigenous Australians to their present state of despair.

As former WA Premier and former Federal Health Minister, Dr Carmen Lawrence, said in the inaugural Dhungalla Kaella Oration in May this year (3)(4): “This is not the first time they’ve been subjected to the will of others, with painful consequences; decisions about their lives have been taken from their hands many times before.

“ … Reinforcing a sense of powerlessness is precisely the opposite of what is needed to generate sustained change” and underlying the uniform constraints placed on welfare is “the racist assumption that ‘all blackfellas are the same’ … stereotypically portrayed as violent, abusive, drunks entirely dependent on welfare.”

Commenting on the style and content of the Intervention, Dr Lawrence said that the conclusion we were invited to draw was that “… Aboriginal people in such communities are so completely debased that there are none among them capable of being partners in addressing the depressing catalogue of disadvantage; only outsiders could properly diagnose the problems and devise the solutions.

“Apart from the sharp insult, what message does it send parents who are providing good care for their children when they are placed on the same quarantining regime as those who abuse and neglect their children? This is the antithesis of making people responsible for their lives; it reduces their ability to take control.

“The task is to dismantle institutionalised racism and discrimination in Australian public policy and to reduce racial bias amongst service providers and policy makers – not to mention politicians and the media.”

It seems Professor Anaya and Dr Lawrence are on the same page. Abbott, Brough and Macklin might have the best of intentions, but sadly they are reading from a book that is long out of print.


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