More than 40 Aboriginal delegates attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) to refute the Australian government’s reporting on its treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The UNPFII, held in New York from May 16 -27, gives indigenous peoples the chance to set the record straight on government assertions. It is also a chance to caucus and work together with other indigenous peoples, and to progress indigenous rights across key areas such as global warming, rights to water and lands and the implementation of the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Aboriginal delegates addressed the 2000-strong forum on a range of critical issues, including the continuing impact of the Northern Territory intervention, government policies to push Aboriginal communities from their homelands, Aboriginal deaths in custody and issues of concern to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.
The UN heard how a lack of participation by Aboriginal people in decision-making has led to harmful policies.
These include the Northern Territory intervention, which contravenes basic human rights, subjecting Aboriginal people in the territory to racially based and systematic abuses, such as “income management”.
Barbara Shaw, from Mt Nancy Town Camp in Alice Springs, and Richard Downs, from the Ampilawatjia communities of the Northern Territory, criticised the intervention with its retention and widening of involuntary income management.
Shaw said: “Recent changes have not restored the Racial Discrimination Act. It focuses on communities with high Aboriginal populations, ensuring these racist and punitive policies will continue to target Aboriginal people and it still enables the forced leasing of community lands to the government.”
Presentations outlined how Aboriginal communities’ resources and school funding are being re-directed from remote homeland communities to 20 identified larger ‘”growth towns”.
The UN heard from Aboriginal delegates that underlying the policy is a radical push to force Aboriginal communities to fit neatly into Western concepts of regional labour markets that don’t allow Aboriginal communities to express different cultural views, lifestyles or economies.
The impact on homeland communities’ learning centres is particularly disturbing, with no access for 46 homeland communities to a full time teacher and no further resources for critical housing.
Downs said: “Homelands have been shown to improve Aboriginal people’s health and lives but we are now being forced away.”
Aboriginal statements to the forum criticised government policies that “heralded a return to the dark years of assimilation of Aboriginal peoples in Australia. When Aboriginal peoples were herded from their lands into mission stations and reservations.”
Aboriginal Legal Services from Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria also combined to highlight to the forum that Australia’s appalling rate of Aboriginal deaths in custody has not improved in the 20 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Presentations confirmed imprisonment rates have risen exponentially, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprising 26% of detainees, though making up only 2.5% of the population.
These figures climb up to 80% for juvenile inmates.
The Aboriginal Legal Services representatives proposed constructive alternatives that focus resources on preventative community initiatives rather than high incarceration rates.
A highlight of the forum for many of the Aboriginal delegates was the stopping of business on the May 26 to recognise Australia’s Stolen Generation.
Auntie Josie Guy, a Gurindji women, delivered a statement to the forum, flanked by Aboriginal delegates standing in support behind her.
Many participants were brought to tears as Auntie Josie spoke of the impact of the policy, which forcibly removed her mother as a six-year-old and then took her away as a two-year-old.
Auntie Josie repeated calls for the establishment of a National Compensation Scheme for all Aboriginal people who suffered the trauma of these policies.
The UNPFII held a minutes silence and reflected on the loss of Indigenous peoples’ rights to bond with their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.
Aunty Josie said: “It was a chance to acknowledge the sorrow caused by assimilationist policies on Indigenous people globally and to personally honour my mother, who always had a cloud of sadness and regret at not ever seeing her mother again and who was in her 50s and 60s before first seeing two of her brothers.”
By the end of the forum, planning and preparatory meetings were underway for the proposed World Indigenous Peoples Conference in 2014. This conference was called by the Bolivian government in the United Nations General Assembly to mark the end of the Second International Decade on Indigenous Peoples.
The conference will evaluate the achievements and objectives of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
This declaration was endorsed by the Australia in 2009, after first dissenting along with the United States of America and New Zealand in 2007. All governments have now endorsed the declaration.
The UNFPII’s final report included key recommendations made by the Aboriginal delegation to undertake a study into indigenous women and violence under Article 22(2) of the declaration, and that the UNFPII hold an expert workshop on Indigenous women.
The theme for the next forum is the “Doctrine of Discovery” — its enduring impact and the right to redress for past conquests.