Human rights shame: Aboriginal people fighting back

Tony Iltis | Green left | 9th December 2009

In February 2008 — at the first session of parliament after he won government — Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a moving apology to the Stolen Generations, the Aboriginal children abducted from their families last century as part of a policy of social engineering to extinguish the Aboriginal identity.

The speech carried the promise that, unlike the preceding Coalition government, the new Labor government was willing to address the ongoing oppression Aboriginal Australians have suffered since the British invaded in 1788.

But the grim reality is that Aboriginal people continue to suffer human rights abuses as horrific as any occurring anywhere in the world. The Rudd government is maintaining Coalition policies that are making the situation worse.

Furthermore, such is the institutional nature of anti-Aboriginal racism that these abuses would pass unnoticed were it not for the strong resistance of the Aboriginal people themselves.

Rudd promised to "close the gap" between Indigenous and non-Indigenous education and health outcomes. The gap is indeed glaring: Aboriginal life expectancy is 17 years less than that of other Australians.

However, Rudd's policies have actually increased the gap.

This is clear in the Northern Territory, where the Rudd government has continued the Coalition's racist NT intervention, recently renamed "Closing the Gap NT".

The intervention's policies aimed to attack Aboriginal self-determination.

Aboriginal people in the NT were subjected to "welfare quarantining" — under which Aboriginal welfare recipients in affected communities get half their payments replaced with a "Basics card" that can only be spent at government-approved stores.

The intervention began with the government sending the army into Aboriginal communities. Other policies have included blanket bans on alcohol and pornography, the appointment of unelected "business managers" and the government takeover of Aboriginal-owned land.

In July, the refusal of the NT and federal governments to do basic repairs to stop sewerage leaks in the community of Ampilatwatja caused community members to walk off their and set up camp outside the intervention's designated area boundaries. The protest camp has become a focus of resistance to the racist policy.

On November 30, the government-appointed "business manager" responsible for Ampilatwatja told ABC local radio in Alice Springs that he had left the job because he could "no longer represent a government that was so unresponsive".

When UN Human Rights Rapporteur James Anaya visited Australia in August, he said the intervention "is incompatible with Australia's obligations under" international human rights law.

Statistics for nutrition, school attendance, domestic violence, education, life expectancy and substance abuse have all got worse in areas affected by the intervention.

Given that lack of self-determination is the root cause of these problems, it should come as no surprise that "Closing the Gap NT" is actually increasing the gap.

The abuse of Aboriginal human rights also takes the form of direct state violence. Since the "hunting parties" of the early years of colonisation, those charged with maintaining law and order in Australia have engaged in extrajudicial killings of Aboriginal people.

Following the 1983 police murder of John Pat, a prolonged Aboriginal-led movement won a Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody in 1990. However, its recommendations have not been implemented.

"If anything, the 139 Royal Commission recommendations have shown the police how to avoid prosecution", Socialist Alliance Aboriginal spokesperson Sam Watson said.

Watson was central to the campaign for justice for Mulrunji Doomadgee, who was arrested by senior sergeant Chris Hurley in November 2004 on Palm Island, near Townsville.

An hour after his arrest, Mulrunji was dead. His autopsy revealed he had been beaten so violently that four ribs were broken, his spleen burst and his liver almost cleaved in two. The surveillance cameras in the cell were switched off.

The death triggered spontaneous protests, during which the police station was burnt down. In November 2008, Palm Island Aboriginal man Lex Wotton was sentenced to six years for "riot with destruction" by an all-white jury.

The harsh treatment of Wotton contrasts with that of Hurley. Initially "investigated" by two mates in the police force over beers, he eventually faced court in 2007 after ongoing protests led by Queensland's Murri community.

However, an all-white jury acquitted him. He later received a promotion.

Tragically, Mulrunji's death was not an isolated case. On January 26, 2008, while Rudd would have been putting the finishing touches on his apology speech, a respected Aboriginal elder, Mr Ward, was arrested for a traffic offence and held overnight in Laverton, Western Australia.

The following day, after a bail hearing that violated legal procedures, he was remanded in custody and handed over to private security company Global Services Ltd (GSL — since renamed G4S).

Despite 42°C temperatures, the GSL guards locked Ward in the back of a small van that lacked ventilation or air conditioning, and drove the four hours to Kalgoorlie, without once checking on Ward.

Temperatures inside the van reached 50°C, while the metal surfaces reached 56°C.

Unsurprisingly, when the guards reached Kalgoorlie, Ward was dead — literally roasted alive.

Apart from the gruesome nature of the killings, what is glaring about the Mulrunji and Ward cases is the trivial nature of the alleged offences. Over-policing, routine denial of bail, and the overuse of custodial sentences by courts, together with endemic poverty, make Aboriginal Australians the world's most imprisoned people.

The connection between land and survival, in the face of more than 200 years of genocide and forced assimilation, is a common thread linking struggles by Aboriginal Australians.

On November 25, Tasmanian Aboriginal activists and supporters began blockading work on the Brighton Bypass, which threatens Aboriginal artefacts, some of which are 18,000 years old.

The Aboriginal community is demanding the bypass be rerouted to avoid the sensitive sites. Police responded with mass arrests. Bail conditions banned activists from returning to the blockade site, but many returned anyway. The December 2 Hobart Mercury said construction of the $200 million bypass may be stalled.

Explaining why the community was determined to protect the sites, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre field officer Trudy Maluga told Green Left Weekly: "Aborigines have our connection to the land, we don't have written history, ours is in the land, once it is gone, removed, it is destroyed forever.

"We are fighting to protect Aboriginal heritage, to show our connection to our people's land. To teach our youth and our great great grandchildren, down the track, how we ate, when we ate it and why ... Our heritage is older than the pyramids."