|Issue No 34||08 October 1999|
Australia Snubs Nose at the UN
By Brenda Finlayson
The United Nations General Assembly will be told that Australia has breached an international convention on racial discrimination that Malcolm Fraser's Government ratified 24 years ago.
The critical November report is the result of two inquiries this year by a UN committee which has considered submissions from individuals, non-government organisations and the Australian Government.
In August, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) met in Geneva to consider the Government's response to its earlier finding in March that the 1998 Native Title Amendment Act discriminated against indigenous Australians. CERD also said the Government had failed to consult indigenous leaders.
This places the Government in breach of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, which Australia signed in 1966 and ratified in 1975. In its March finding, CERD urged the Government to suspend implementation of the Native Title Amendment Act and resume talks with the National Indigenous Working Group. The Prime Minister, John Howard, and Attorney General Darryl Williams responded by saying the Government would take no notice of the findings.
Australia will now be reported to the General Assembly in November for failing to address breaches of the convention. The two reports by the CERD committee - made in March and August - will be presented, along with the Australian Government's August submission.
In that submission, the Government moved from defending its native title policy to promoting its racial harmony campaign, reconciliation, health, housing and the push for Aboriginal self-reliance.
The Government told CERD: "A concerted effort is being made to pursue tangible improvements in the critical areas of indigenous health, housing, education and employment. The Government is funding strategies which encourage commercial enterprise and long-term self-reliance, rather than perpetuating welfare dependancy."
However, critics say it is the Government's duty to improve health, housing and education standards for indigenous Australians and that to boast in an international forum that these "concerted efforts" are proof of the Government's credentials on race is a distraction from the real debate. Acceptable standards of housing, health and education are a basic human right, and one that most non-indigenous Australians take for granted; efforts in these areas do nothing to distill the United Nations finding.
Defenders of Native Title and other groups working for indigenous justice reacted to the August decision by calling for Mr Howard to take decisive action to halt international criticism over its indigenous policies.
Australia is the first Western nation to be called before the committee to explain its policies on race. Other countries called to account include Algeria, Bosnia, Burundi, Russia, Rwanda and Yugoslavia.
Credibility at stake
Amnesty International, responding to CERD's initial finding, said the Australian Government's inappropriate attitude to UN criticism placed at stake the credibility of Australia's human rights diplomacy.
"How can Australia play a credible role in responding to UN efforts on human rights protection in Indonesia, East Timor or elsewhere, if it fails to consider seriously the findings of the UN's oldest and most experienced specialist committee on human rights?" it said in a statement from London.
Amnesty said it was concerned about the Australian Government's reported claim that the findings "discredit" the UN human rights committee system.
"Like any other government, Prime Minister John Howard's administration must accept the scrutiny of its human rights record by UN mechanisms which were established and promoted through decades of commendable Australian diplomacy," said Amnesty.
"The sweeping dismissal of the committee's findings is regrettably in line with the Government's previous negative responses to UN recommendations on Australia's human rights practices. This dangerous trend risks undermining international efforts to allow specialist UN human rights scrutiny in Australia's Asian neighbourhood."
Three members of CERD asked to visit Australia in mid-1999 before they report to the General Assembly. UN protocol requires that an official visit can only proceed if a Government formally invites the delegates - but the Government rebuffed the committee members in April, saying the visit "would be of little value".
Victorian ATSIC Commissioner Geoff Clark said at the time: "The Government can't expect any credibility by arguing that the native title amendments are not racially discriminatory and then slamming the door on a UN committee that wants to check the facts. It should stand by its claims and be open to scrutiny. "
A jarring contradiction
The Government's reaction to the Geneva findings - describing them as "an insult to Australia" - stands to damage this country's reputation on the international human rights stage. When criticised, the Government dismisses a UN committee as "irrelevant"; yet it seeks UN support when responding to a neighbouring humanitarian crisis.
The Government is at odds with international experts when it denies that the native title amendments discriminate against indigenous Australians, and there seems little doubt that Australia is contravening its obligations to an international convention on race. The Australian Government will be reported to the UN General Assembly at the same time the draft Document for Reconciliation is being circulated, in what will be a jarring contradiction for the many Australians who are working towards grassroots reconciliation.
The Government must appear in Geneva again in March 2000, when CERD will widen its focus to consider three overdue periodic reports from Australia on its obligations under the convention. Les Malezer, Deputy Chairperson of the National Indigenous Working Group, predicts that attention will then focus on the Government's record on Deaths in Custody, the Stolen Generation and the reconciliation process. Mr Malezer also expects many submissions to be made by Australian and overseas NGOs.
Every voice raised in this debate will have an impact. Your opinion can count if you help pressure the Government into implementing the recommendations made by CERD in March by:
∑ Expressing your concern to the media and to Australian Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer at A.Downer.MP@aph.gov.au and/or the Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Herron, at firstname.lastname@example.org Ask them to forward the message to the Prime Minister, John Howard. It is important to copy this message to Kim Beazley, Kim.Beazley.MP@aph.gov.au
For those without email, write c/- Parliament House Canberra 2600
∑ Informing community groups about the issue
∑ Writing to CERD in Geneva asking them to maintain pressure on the Australian Government to fulfill its treaty obligations:
Secretariat of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations Office
8-14 Avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneve 10
∑ Contacting talkback radio and writing letters to local, metropolitan and national newspapers and magazines calling on the Government to act on the CERD recommendations
Points that could be included in letters and raised in the community include:
∑ Australia is in breach of its obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination
∑ Australia is the first Western country subjected to CERD's early warning procedures
∑ CERD found that while the original Native Title Act recognised and gave protections to indigenous title, provisions that extinguish or impair the exercise of indigenous title rights and interests pervade the amended Act. While the original 1993 Native Title Act was balanced between the rights of indigenous and non-indigenous title holders, the amended Act appears to create legal certainty for governments and third parties at the expense of indigenous title
∑ CERD was concerned about the 'lack of effective participation by indigenous communities in the formulation of the amendments', and called for the suspension of the implementation of the 1998 amendments
∑ The Australian Government refused to endorse a visit by three CERD members in April
∑ The 1998 Native Title Amendment Act breaches the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination because it:
- does not protect the land ownership of Aboriginal people
- increases the legal ownership rights over land held by non-Aboriginal parties, such as pastoralists, and increases the other land ownership rights to the corresponding detriment of the Aboriginal people
- prefers the interests in land of non-Aboriginal people over the interests of Aboriginal people in all instances where invalid titles occur through duplication of ownership
- interferes with Aboriginal landowners' rights to negotiate their interests over their land
- does not have the informed consent of Aboriginal people
Submissions and background information can be found on the website of the Foundation for Aboriginal and Islander Research Action: www.faira.org.au. Please send copies of submissions/letters to Les Malezer - mailto:email@example.com
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