Australia asked to 'please explain'
By Kim Bullimore
Australia will be the first western country asked to "please explain" its policies on race to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). Australia, a signatory to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, is required to send a representative to appear before CERD in Geneva in March.
CERD has become increasingly concerned about changes in policy relating to indigenous issues such as land rights, cultural heritage and social justice.
In September 1997, CERD released a report which focused on Australia's implementation of the convention. The report focused attention on the need for an education campaign to promote tolerance, and detailed specific concerns regarding the recognition of indigenous religious, cultural and heritage values.
CERD released another statement in August, which highlighted the extent to which Australia was out of step with United Nations standards on indigenous rights.
The statement called on all governments to:
- recognise and respect indigenous culture, history, language and way of life as an enrichment of the state's cultural identity and to promote its preservation;
- ensure that members of indigenous peoples have equal rights to participate in public life and that no decisions directly relating to their rights and interests be taken without their informed consent;
- recognise and protect the rights of indigenous peoples to own, develop, control and use their communal lands, territories and resources and, where they have been deprived of their lands, to take steps to return them.
A month after the release of this statement, CERD expressed concern over federal government policy changes, in particular the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commission and undermining of land rights.
According to CERD committee member Professor Wolfrum, "the situation in Australia is clearly deteriorating compared with 1994 [when CERD praised Australia's performance]".