Govt must act on UN report: NT churches

Tara Ravens | | 1st September 2009 + PLUS RELATED ARTICLES

Click for larger image and descriptionChurch leaders in the Northern Territory are calling on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to act on the damning criticisms of a UN expert on indigenous rights.

The UN's special rapporteur James Anaya last week described the controversial intervention into remote Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and their impact on the communities as "overtly discriminatory".

He singled out compulsory welfare income management, land takeovers and alcohol bans as evidence of the double standards that exist in Australia, and called on Labor to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act.

The professor's findings have prompted the Anglican Bishop of the Northern Territory, Greg Thompson, to call on the Rudd government to reform the controversial measures.

"(Do) not diminish the spirit of the apology by subverting universal human rights of first Australians in the Northern Territory," he said in a statement.

"Such a policy foundation based on coercion is a return to the repertoires of colonisation.

If the commonwealth was working with an 'end justifies the means' approach, Bishop Thompson said it was up to the public to ask: "what are the ends that have been justified in the last 26 months?"

Despite millions of dollars in federal funds being spent since 2007, Prof Anaya found the intervention was "not working".

Among his more damning assertions were that the measures, launched under the guise of combating child sex abuse, are incompatible with Australia's obligation's under three international treaties.

"The visit from Professor James Anaya has given our government the opportunity to openly review its current policies and its international obligations to Aboriginal people," said Catholic Bishop Eugene Hurley of the Diocese of Darwin.

Michele Harris, a spokeswoman for the activist group Concerned Australians, said the commonwealth needed to act to save the nation's international reputation.

"The world is watching," she said.

"We rely on Prime Minister Rudd to ensure that we can feel proud that Australia is prepared to make the required changes to conform to global standards."

Bishop Thompson also backed Prof Anaya's calls for strong indigenous leadership.

"We need national bipartisan leadership that secures a healthy future for children without the destruction of indigenous leadership," he said.

High profile Aboriginal leader Warren Mundine has also been criticised for dismissing Prof Anaya's findings.

Richard Downs, spokesman for the Alyawarra Nation in central Australia, made the comments on Tuesday in response to Mr Mundine's criticism of the UN's special rapporteur's report.

"This rapporteur's report should be dealt with the same as every other rapporteur's report - just drop it in the bin and actually get on with the job," Mr Mundine told ABC radio last week.

"What is detrimental about the protecting of children, the protecting of women against sexual assault, physical assault?"

But Mr Downs said the former ALP president had no idea what was happening out in the communities.

"Get out of your air-conditioned office," he said in a statement.

"You need to visit the people on ground, see and listen to them or are you afraid to find and learn the truth?

"You are an outsider, an outcast."

Mr Downs said claims from the Labor powerbroker that the intervention was helping vulnerable women and children were "simply not true".

"Give us the evidence on how many convictions there has been with sexual child abuse, rape, murders," he said.

"Where is this indigenous paedophile ring your government's statements stated at the beginning ..?

"Your government's so-called measures under the intervention go far beyond this to take away our dignity, our self-esteem, and land control, disempowerment, human and indigenous rights."

How to take the UN Indigenous report card

Binoy Kampmark | Eureka Street | 3rd September 2009

When the statement of the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Human Rights on the situation in the Northern Territory was released last week, there was a howl of protest. Professor James Anaya's 11-day tour of Aboriginal communities did not leave him with a positive impression. He found a compelling 'need to develop new initiatives and reform existing ones — to conform with international standards requiring genuine respect for cultural integrity and self-determination'.

The dyke of discontent duly opened. Warren Mundine, former Labor Party President and prominent Aboriginal activist has suggested binning the report, much like 'other' reports from that same office.

Jenny Macklin, in her role as Indigenous Affairs Minister, was more than a bit put out by the statement. She told ABC News: 'For me, when it comes to human rights, the most important human right that I feel as a Minister I have to confront, is the need to protect the rights of the most vulnerable particularly children and for them to have a safe and happy life and a safe and happy family to grow up in.'

Shredding or, in this case, binning a report from an international organisation is irresistible for hardnosed policy makers in the frontline of combating Aboriginal misery in the Northern Territory. Anaya is not himself being dogmatic. His statement is a sober, obvious reflection that programs are not duplicated, and that such matters as the Closing the Gap campaign, the Emergency Response and other government initiatives be achieved in partnership with local indigenous institutions.

He pays, as he should, respect to international human rights norms that place the Indigenous community in a prominent decision making role. Words like 'autonomy' and 'self-determination' should not be a species of rhetorical flotsam. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples, he argues, should directly participate in the 'design of programs and polices at the national level, within a forum that is genuinely representative of the rights and interests of Indigenous peoples'.

He urges a 'holistic' approach in dealing with the problems of Australia's Indigenous peoples. None of these suggestions should upset the Rudd Government.

Anaya also encourages the deed more than the word. Reconciliation is not merely gnosis but praxis — action must be taken to pursue its objective. He is mindful of this in the context of the intervention. He cannot quite understand how the Emergency Response could be 'proportionate' in infringing rights. Rights may be violated in certain policy contexts that can be justified in the name of the 'public good', but one should always be wary of such assertions.

He recommends reinstating the protections offered by the Racial Discrimination Act.

Ignoring Anaya's well-reasoned statement will not be disastrous for Australia. The judgments of international organisations are often blithely ignored. But refusing to at least pay respectful lip service to Anaya's statement continues a long tendency, instituted by the Howard Government, of ignoring international advice, convention and protocol.

That position comes close to that of such anti-treaty figures as John Bolton, former US Ambassador to the UN and staunch anti-internationalist. Such a rigid strategy of reducing treaties and recommendations to scraps of paper can trash pronouncements that might have some merit.

Wisdom does not always begin at home. There are times when it helps to have an international body condemn an obnoxious law or practice. Objective distance, and one attained from sources outside the problem, can also shed light on local conundrums. Too often, the Indigenous communities of Australia have had no other forum than an international one to air their grievances and express their grief.

The Intervention is discriminatory, insofar as it targets a specific social and historical problem associated with a particular people. It is a distasteful response to a distasteful problem. That would seem to be stating the obvious.

The onus is, as it always has been, on the government authorities to demonstrate the effectiveness of the Intervention and how it will benefit the Indigenous population. Some within the Indigenous community have agreed with it. Some haven't. The jury is out and circling. We still await the verdict.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He is currently lecturing at RMIT University, Melbourne.