UN report slams NT intervention

Saturday, September 4, 2010
A ‘prescribed area’ sign typical of those in remote Aboriginal communities in the NT. The UN committee said the NT intervention ‘continued to discriminate on the basis of race’. Photo: Ella Ryan

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) slammed the policies of the Northern Territory intervention in a report released on August 27.

The report said that despite Australia seeing itself as a country without racism, laws such as the NT intervention showed that racism had become “embedded” in Australian life.

The committee said the NT intervention “continued to discriminate on the basis of race as well as the use of so called special measures by [Australia]”.

The intervention imposes a series of discriminatory measures against Aboriginal people in remote communities. It was launched by the Howard Coalition government in August 2007 and has been extended under Labor.

It was launched in the name of saving Aboriginal children from abuse and neglect. But health officials, such as Sunrise Health in Katherine, have said the discriminatory policies have worsened health outcomes for children and psychologically scarred Aboriginal people by branding them paedophiles.

Barbara Shaw, from the Intervention Rollback Action Group in Alice Springs, helped launch the original complaint to the CERD with other people from Prescribed Areas in 2009.

She said Labor's new laws will perpetuate racism and the intervention should be scrapped.

“People from the Prescribed Areas put this complaint together with human rights lawyers after we had out lives torn apart by the intervention. It's shameful and disgusting the way Aboriginal people are treated in this country.

“The Racial Discrimination Act [RDA} has been suspended three times, each time to oppress our people. Under Labor’s new laws it is still suspended here in the NT so the government can control our lives and our lands and force assimilation.

“We have said clearly from the start these laws aren't 'special measures' — they are designed to dispossess and disempower Aboriginal people. As the report points out, we have lost land, property, employment, legal rights and opportunities for cultural development.

“Our standard of living has gone backwards. But Labor refused to listen and has continued with the intervention largely unchanged.”

Shaw ran as a candidate for the Greens in the NT seat of Lingiari in the August 21 federal election on a clear, anti-intervention platform. She received 12.5% of the vote, making the normally safe ALP seat marginal. In each of the remote Aboriginal communities south of Tennant Creek, she out-polled sitting ALP member Warren Snowden — a result he admitted was due to hostility to the NT intervention.

Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes used the report to attack the legislation. He said in a speech to the CERD on August 11: “The provision of standard services to Aboriginal communities, that are available to all other Australian citizens, cannot be properly considered as special measures.

“It’s wrong thinking, and disregards the rights, and diminishes the citizenship, of Aboriginal Australians.”

Innes called for Australia to make the RDA enforceable by law and a part of the constitution — a call that came a step closer to being accomplished on September 1 when the Australian Greens signed a deal with the ALP to support an ALP minority government.

Part of the deal was that the government would hold a referendum to change the constitution to recognise Aboriginal rights. The detail of the changes is not yet available, but if this change were one that also strengthened the RDA, it would go a long way to undermining the NT intervention.

Shaw told ABC News on August 28: “I actually support the [UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People] being embedded into the constitution and not Aboriginal people just being written into the preamble.

“At the moment Aboriginal people in the constitution have got a right to vote and a right to religion and that's not enough for us.”

Victorian Aboriginal activist and Socialist Alliance member Sharon Firebrace told Green Left Weekly: “It’s good that the Greens have brought this up because it raises something that we can use and that’s treaty.

“If there was a treaty, then Aboriginal rights would be recognised in this country and racist policies like this wouldn’t be lawful.

“[Indigenous affairs minister Jenny] Macklin has said that she will reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act in December, but she’s only doing that because of hard work on the streets by people who are campaigning for human rights.

“But what Macklin hasn’t done is address the racist measures in the legislation. All of the measures in the NT intervention add up to genocide. They are forcing people off their traditional lands. They are forcing people to lease their lands to the government. They are forcing people to not speak their own languages. All of these measures add up to genocide.”

Firebrace said the bipartisan support of the major parties for the NT intervention was a “senseless attack on impoverished Aboriginal people”.

[For more on the Greens-ALP deal, read GLW’s interview with Adam Bandt.]

From GLW issue 851