The NT intervention must be ended!

Issue 

The following is abridged from George Newhouse's speech at the November 26 opening of "ARTicles — The Human Rights Declaration", Amnesty International Australia's 2008 art exhibition, which celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Sixty years years ago the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which we commemorate here tonight.

The human rights declaration was born out of the horrors of the second world war. Tired of the violence, rape, brutality and murder of war, the UN made a clear statement that no one should ever again suffer discrimination and persecution, and laid out a series of inalienable human rights. The declaration provides a moral compass for our modern world.

Mounting international concern over racial discrimination led the UN General Assembly, in 1963, to take the formal step of adopting the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. By ratifying that convention, Australia agreed to outlaw discriminatory legislation, which includes the current intervention regime.

It is hard to believe that 60 years after the Declaration of Human Rights — and 40 years after adopting the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination — a group of Aboriginals, led by Barbara Shaw in Alice Springs, are complaining about the Australian government's racist laws to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

The Little Children are Sacred report, released in the lead-up to the last federal election, focused on Aboriginal disadvantage and need ... it presented many positive reforms, including better policing, education, care, consultation and support for victims and witnesses.

What it did not do was to recommend: punishment; quarantining; scrapping Aboriginal employment programs; the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land; or suspending the Racial Discrimination Act.

But the [John] Howard government was in election mode and one doesn't have to be too cynical to see that the "little children" were used to implement a hidden agenda.

The intervention was an ideologically driven campaign by a government that was opposed to communal ownership of aboriginal land and assets:
* it allowed the government to grant star chamber criminal investigative powers against Aboriginal men that had only ever applied to terrorists and Mafiosi before;
* it allowed the government to quarantine the social security payments of Indigenous Australians;
* it allowed a rollback of Indigenous cultural institutions, like teaching local languages and the integration of traditional law into our legal system;
* it allowed the government to "decapitate" Indigenous leadership, having already destroyed its national leadership, the former government then turned its attention to local and communal Indigenous leadership; and
* finally, the government got to change perceptions and re-frame the narrative of the Stolen Generations.

It was a brilliant strategy.

The message to "get tough on blacks" appealed to hardliners, but it also quieted everyday Australians. We could hardly object to protecting women and children from abuse. It didn't matter that the thrust of the government's policies were not connected to child abuse at all.

Supporters of the intervention accuse anyone who demands non-discriminatory solutions to the crisis of being in league with paedophiles and violent men. This was and still is the language used to silence critics.

But the inflammatory message that many Aboriginal men were paedophiles gave the former government a unique opportunity to shift perceptions about the causes of Indigenous squalor and re-frame the history of the Stolen Generations.

Some of the dog-whistle messages that lay behind the interventionist policies were that Aboriginals were responsible for their own misfortune and, even worse, that the Stolen Generations had to be taken from their parents to protect them from filth, violence and paedophilia.

Yes, Indigenous communities are in crisis today, and women and children throughout Australia have a right to be protected from violence. Everyone has the right to live in peace without fear, but this must and can be achieved without discriminating against Aboriginals.

The Little Children are Sacred report never identified Aboriginal men as the only or even the major perpetrators of sexual abuse. The report states that sexual abuse of children is not restricted to those of Aboriginal descent, nor committed only by those of Aboriginal descent, nor to just the Northern Territory. The phenomenon knows no racial, age or gender borders.

If the government's primary objective was to address child abuse, it would have implemented the recommendations in the Little Children are Sacred Report and taken a national approach to the problem.

The government's response ignores the causes of violence and abuse. The Little Children are Sacred Report makes the observation that:

"The incidence of child sexual abuse, whether in Aboriginal or so-called mainstream communities, is often directly related to other breakdowns in society. Put simply, the cumulative effects of poor health, alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, pornography, unemployment, poor education and housing and general disempowerment lead inexorably to family and other violence and then on to sexual abuse of men and women and, finally, of children.

But instead of dealing with those basic services, the Howard government's intervention punished the victims with a raft of tough discriminatory laws ... Laws that degraded Aboriginals, made their struggles more difficult, increased their levels of poverty and increased their experiences of racism and discrimination in their daily life.

The imposition of income management provisions is widely regarded as an insult to Aboriginal people in the Territory. The feeling of being stigmatised and restricted on the basis of race is having a deeply negative psychological impact. The system is creating segregated service delivery, leading to deep feelings of shame and an increased experience of racism.

It is scandalous that our government has created an apartheid system where Aboriginal Australians are forced to line up in separate queues in grocery stores throughout the NT.

Far from improving access to "essential items" for families, income management has created extensive layers of bureaucracy for Aboriginal people to negotiate before they are able to access their entitlements. This has made dealing with all the demands on families, such as travel, health care, food and rent, much harder.

The current federal government instigated a review of the intervention, which concluded that the intervention is letting Aboriginal Australians down and was highly critical of the racist intervention regime. Since then, the federal government declared that it will introduce reforms to allow the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act to be lifted, in 12 months' time.

Amnesty International Australia has welcomed the federal government's announcement, however it has indicated a concern about the time taken for the transition to a new approach. Quite frankly, a further 12 months is too long for Aboriginals to wait.

With no constitutional protection, Indigenous Australians find themselves with no other recourse than to complain about their government to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. CERD has the power to urgently respond to problems that require "immediate attention to prevent or limit the scale or number of serious violations of the convention", and Aboriginal Australians like Barbara Shaw of the Prescribed Area Peoples Alliance have every intention of placing the world's spotlight on the Australian government's policies in prescribed areas in the NT.

We cannot celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights while our first Australians are suffering from regressive and discriminatory laws. Amnesty International has made it clear that, "The protection of the rights of women and children need not and must not be at the expense of the right to protection from discrimination", and that "it is time for a new approach by Government that is based on meaningful consultation with affected Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities".

Amnesty International must keep the pressure up on the current government. You can all make a personal stand against discrimination by pressing Jenny Macklin and our Prime Minister to introduce a new and consultative approach quickly, and by calling on the independent and Liberal senators to support these urgent reforms.

You can also attend rallies taking place around the country on Human Rights Day and at the opening of [federal] parliament in 2009.

Finally, you can help support Barbara Shaw with her campaign in the UN by contributing financially to the Intervention Rollback Action Group at http://www.rollbacktheintervention.wordpress.com.

[George Newhouse is a human rights lawyer, the former mayor of Waverley council in Sydney and the ALP candidate for the seat of Wentworth in the 2007 federal elections.]

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