Race Discrimination: UN Committee Releases Report and Recommendations on Australia

A high-level UN committee has found that Australia needs to take urgent measures to address racism and racial discrimination, disadvantage and inequality. On 27 August 2010, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination released its Concluding Observations following a review of Australia’s compliance with the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

The Committee welcomed a number of recent positive developments in Australia, including the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, the endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the commitment to "Close the Gap" in Indigenous health inequality, and Australia's closer engagement with a number of UN human rights instruments and mechanisms.

The Committee raised serious concerns about a range of Australian laws, policies and practices, including the Northern Territory Intervention, the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act, the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, and the impact of Australia's counter-terror laws.

The CERD Committee also expressed its regret that many recommendations from previous reports have not been properly implemented in Australia, including in relation to deaths in custody, the socio-economic disadvantage of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, gross over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the prison population, Aboriginal land rights and the mandatory detention of asylum seekers.

The Committee made over 20 recommendations for concrete action to address racial discrimination, disadvantage and inequality in Australia, including in relation to Australia's legal framework, Indigenous peoples, refugees and asylum seekers, and multiculturalism and racial harmony.

Australia's Legal Framework

The Committe recommends that the Government:

  • comprehensively implement the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination in Australian law;
  • strengthen federal anti-discrimination laws to ensure comprehensive and entrenched protection against racial discrimination;
  • consider expanding the powers, functions and financing of the Australian Human Rights Commission, including the appointment of a  full-time Race Discrimination Commissioner;
  • develop a legal framework to prevent acts of Australian corporations which negatively impact on the rights of Indigenous peoples domestically and overseas and to regulate the extra-territorial activities of Australian corporations abroad;
  • ensure that acts of racial hatred are criminalized and prosecuted; and
  • consider ratifying those international human rights treaties which it has not yet ratified,such as the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (1990), the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, and ILO Convention No 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples

The Committe recommends that the Government:

  • amend the Australian Constitution to include the recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as First Nations Peoples;
  • consider the negotiation of a treaty agreement to build a constructive and sustained relationship with Indigenous peoples;
  • reset the relationship with Aboriginal people based on genuine consultation, engagement and partnership and that Government actions affecting the Aboriginal communities respect Australia's human rights obligations and conform with the Racial Discrimination Act;
  • reform and remedy the discriminatory impact that the Northern Territory Emergency Response has had on affected communities, including restrictions on Aboriginal rights to land, property, social security, adequate standards of living, cultural development and work;
  • amend the Native Title Act 1993 to address the persisting high standards of proof required for recognition of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and their traditional lands, and the fact that in spite of large investmenst of time and resources by Indigenous peoples, many are unable to obtain recognition of their relationship to land;
  • increase access to justice for Indigenous peoples, including through increased funding for Aboriginal legal aid and interpretative services;
  • in light of the grossly disproportionate incarceration of Indigenous people, dedicate sufficient resources to address the social and economic factors underpinning Indigenous contact with the criminal justice system, including by adopting a justice reinvestment strategy, continuing and increasing the use of Indigenous courts and conciliation mechanisms, diversionary and prevention programs and restorative justice strategies;
  • ensure the provision of adequate health care to prisoners;
  • adopt all necessary measures to preserve native languages and develop and carry out programmes to revitalize Indigenous languages and bilingual and intercultural education for Indigenous peoples respecting cultural identity and history; and
  • implement appropriate compensation payment schemes for the Stolen Generations and in relation to Indigenous Stolen Wages.

Refugees and Asylum Seekers

The Committe recommends that the Government:

  • review the regime of mandatory detention of asylum seekers with a view to finding an alternative to detention, ensuring that the detention of asylum seekers is always a measure of last resort and is limited by statute to the shortest time reasonably necessary, and that all forms of arbitrary detention be avoided;
  • expedite the removal of the suspension on processing visa applications from asylum seekers from Afghanistan;
  • develop appropriate reception arrangements, in particular for children;
  • amend domestic law, in accordance with article 5 (b) of the Convention, to ensure that the principle of non-refoulement is respected when proceeding with return of asylum-seekers to countries; and
  • continue its cooperation with UNHCR in regard to the above.

Multiculturalism and Racial Equality and Harmony

The Committe recommends that the Government:

  • develop and implement an updated comprehensive multicultural policy and strengthen the race and cultural dimensions of its Social Inclusion Agenda;
  • ensure that counter-terrorism laws and practices do not include racial profiling, which may contribute to increased stigmatization of certain groups, and do not discriminate in purpose or effect on grounds of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin;
  • in light of recent attacks on international students, particularly Indian students, intensify efforts to combat racially motivated violence, including by requiring law enforcement authorities to collect data on the nationality and ethnicity of victims of such crimes and ensuring that judges, prosecutors and the police apply, in practice, existing legal provisions which consider the motive of ethnic, racial or religious hatred or enmity an aggravating circumstance;
  • include human rights education in the national curriculum; and
  • ensure that an anti-racism strategy be established under the new Human Rights Framework and that an education program for all Australians, with particular reference to combating discrimination, prejudice and racism.

The Committee’s findings and recommendations are available here.

An HRLRC media release is here.

The major NGO Report to the Committee, together with 9 Fact Sheets on key issues in respect of Australia's compliance with CERD, is here.