On 13 September 2007 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It was a major achievement in international governance, a significant step towards redressing the unjust taking of the lands and resources of Indigenous Peoples around the world. In the development of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Australia was both the hero and the villain. In the early stages Australia stood up for the right of self-determination of Indigenous Peoples. But by the final stages of negotiations Australia’s position had changed, opposing the right to self-determination and the right to free, prior and informed consent as giving Indigenous peoples the power of veto over sovereign parliaments.
Along with Canada, the USA and New Zealand, Australia ultimately sought to frustrate the adoption of the Declaration by the United Nations. These four States would be the only ones to vote against the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples when it was finally adopted by the General Assembly.
The Declaration contains no new provisions of human rights. It affirms many rights already contained in international human rights treaties, but rights which have been denied to Indigenous Peoples. It is a tool for peace and justice, based upon mutual recognition and mutual respect. The Declaration also represents a compromise reached between Indigenous peoples and States.
I can assure you that the Indigenous peoples of the world will never allow this piece of history to be undone. There is no going back.
However hard it is or will be for the political leadership of Australia, or for the citizens of Australia, the right of the Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples to self-determination, and the rights that follow from the exercise of self-determination, cannot be put “back in the box”. The demand by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and from their supporters, for substantial change cannot be disregarded.
I believe that Bob Hawke realised that when he was met with the mini revolt in 1985 after reneging on national land rights legislation. I believe Paul Keating understood that when he delivered his “Redfern Speech” on International Human Rights Day in 1992. I believe John Howard was told that on 27 May 2000 when half a million people walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge.
I must admit I am not so sure what the current leadership understands at this stage, although I take some comfort from the Federal Government’s statement of 3 April 2009 finally expressing support for the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
I believe the steps already taken to change the Constitution of Australia are consistent with a will to create good faith with Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
While certain members and leadership within our Indigenous community prefer to assert their “sovereign” identity and impose a political solution through resistance and opposition to the Australian nation, the preparedness by government and society to re-examine the Constitution in this new millennium should not be rejected outright.
The Expert Panel established to review the Constitution has produced an excellent report. It is a consensus report and, given the diversity of this Expert Panel, that has to mean a lot.
In my role as Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, I am committed to holding the Declaration high as we unravel the bequest of Australia’s race history, redeem the cultural integrity of the world’s most ancient surviving civilisation and culture, and navigate the political maze of the rich and powerful “haves” and the ostracised and exploited “have nots”.
Congress is a non-government body and, apart from financial strings, the government cannot exercise any control over the Congress. Our establishment as a Congress is consistent with article 18 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which states that Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision-making in matters which would affect their rights, through representatives chosen by themselves in accordance with their own procedures.
The “intervention laws” anger me greatly, bringing me back to my roots in Queensland in the 1970s when we fought, both physically and psychologically, to end the notorious “black acts”.
Bound to New York in 2007 as I worked on negotiation and adoption of the Declaration I was stirred to ask these questions. “How and why are people accepting this process for fast-track law-making?” Even anti-terrorism laws were more carefully handled. “How can a government be so prejudiced and so prepared to create racial division in this way, and why aren’t the people rioting in the streets?”
I was incredulous. I was living in two worlds – the world of human rights, and the world of outright racial oppression.
The change of government at the end of 2007 brought hope. But somehow the language and images used by the Howard Government did not change under the Rudd Government.
The racist laws of the Intervention were criticised directly by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and then the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who publically expressed her concerns regarding the human rights implications of the policies and laws.
To my knowledge no attention has been given to these reports by the Parliament of Australia.
The Senate is in the process of the Second Reading of the “Stronger Futures” Bills and the intervention laws, whichever way the government wants to describe these new Bills, are set to be extended by another ten years.
Article 19 of the Declaration says “States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting and implementing legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.”
There should be no doubt that Australia is not only defaulting on its support for the Declaration but is failing to ensure that the Bills comply with Australia’s international human rights obligations.
Congress has requested that the Minister and the parliament examine the Bills for compliance with international human rights standards. The Minister has, to date, failed to respond to that request. Congress is in the process of requesting that the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights consider the Bills. At this stage we are uncertain if the Committee will respond positively to our request.
Self-determination is the essential factor, and self-determination requires government to dismantle the belief that direct intervention into lives of the First Peoples at the very personal level is necessary. This is the approach of the coloniser. Fortunately history reveals the mistakes of the coloniser, and the magnitude of the cost of such mistakes upon the First Peoples.
Congress believes it is not too late for the Gillard Government to revise its policies and direction in Aboriginal and Islander Affairs.
Congress remains ready to sit down with the Prime Minister and Minister to look for true solutions.
Les Malezer is Co-Chair of the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples.
This is an edited extract from his keynote speech to the 2012 Annual Human Rights Dinner.