UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay today rebuked Australia for its political, rather than human rights based approach to indigenous people and asylum-seekers. Although criticizing some of Australia’s practices, she had considerable praise for Australia’s
“strong history of commitment to human rights at the international level, and also of course a robust system of democratic institutions.”
Nonetheless, she believes improvements are necessary in the realm of treatment of Aborigines and immigrants.
“I welcome the National Apology and Australia’s formal recognition of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, along with the significant investment being made to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and education. However, I believe these efforts are being undermined by policies that fail to recognise the right to self-determination for indigenous people, which is a key element of the UN Declaration.
In my discussions with Aboriginal people, I could sense the deep hurt and pain that they have suffered because of government policies that are imposed on them. I also saw Aboriginal people making great efforts to improve their communities, but noted that their efforts are often stifled by inappropriate and inflexible policies that fail to empower the most effective, local solutions.”
On the topic of asylum-seekers, Pillay described situations where refugees wait in immigration centres for months or years. She recommended greater communication with both groups, a revamp of how the Aborigine’s in the Northern Territory are handled, and for political leaders to quit “demonizing” refugees and immigrants.
“There is a racial discriminatory element here which I see as rather inhumane treatment of people judged by their differences in colour, religion and so on…”
Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio Wednesday that he had “a very productive discussion” with Pillay on Tuesday and remained committed to finalizing details of the pact with Malaysia.
Pillay said Australia should process refugee applications rather than transporting asylum seekers to Malaysia, which has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention or Convention Against Torture.
She was not satisfied by Gillard’s assurances that Malaysia would provide written assurances that asylum seekers’ right would be protected.
“In my view and as international jurisprudence has shown, assurances are not sufficient protection…”
On the positive, Pillay acknowledge recent efforts by the Australian government to recognise and redress the long history of discrimination and disadvantage among Indigenous Australians, noting that these efforts have not always resulted in better conditions. Pillay also noted that Prime Minister Gillard had announced last year a national referendum to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian Constitution.
The realities of racism in Australia
The positives noted by Pillay need to be weighed against the fact that in August 2010, Amnesty International Australia (AIA) criticized the racial discrimination that exists in Australia, which, according to AIA, violates the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
In June, 2010 the Australian government reinstated the previously suspended Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) in the Northern Territory. Under the Northern Territory National Emergency Response Act (NTER), the government was able to intervene in indigenous areas by setting aside a portion of the welfare benefits received for rent, food and medical care in order to prevent the designated money from being spent on alcohol. The reinstatement of the RDA allows the regulation of welfare payments to remain in place, but the regulations will be applied to both indigenous and non-indigenous citizens living in the Northern Territory. UN special rapporteur James Anaya condemned the law, calling it problematic from a human rights point of view.
In 2009, Australia endorsed the aforementioned Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which reversed the position adopted by the Howard government. Though again this adoption of an international treaty by the Australian government is little more than window dressing, as according to AIA the Australian Government is not adhering to its provisions.
On August 9, 2010, AIA criticized the Australian government for not taking greater measures to eliminate racial discrimination, violating its obligations under international law. The charges were made in a report to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the body that oversees the implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. According to AIA, ongoing policies and initiatives by the Australian government violate the Convention and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. AIA noted that the Australian government had still not implemented legal reforms creating rights against discrimination. The rights organization cited several provisions of the Australian Constitution, which it claims violate Australian obligations under international law, including those allowing for Australian states to disenfranchise entire racial groups and empowering the national parliament to legislate along racial lines. According to AIA, Australian policies toward asylum seekers and refugees also violate its treaty commitments by discriminating based on national origin and allowing for the indefinite detention of undocumented and stateless persons. AIA also pointed to the continuing discrimination against indigenous peoples in its report, finding the NTER to be the most pressing discriminatory policy, interfering with almost every aspect of indigenous life. AIA explained:
[T]he Government … must reinstate full legal protections against racial discrimination. It must also put an end to any intervention measure that does not comply with the Convention. Refusing to process visa applications from asylum seekers fleeing oppression in war-torn Afghanistan is completely unacceptable. The discrimination within these procedures must be eliminated. It’s up to all of our political leaders to make sure their policies comply with the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
AIA also found several positive steps taken in recent years by the Australian government. These include an official apology to indigenous victims of the Stolen Generation and initiatives to increase indigenous health and life expectancy.
For an interesting discussion on corporate racism in Australia, I refer readers to Corruption and Racism in the Australian Federal Police and the death of Australia’s democracy which discusses among other issues, entrenched racism in Australia’s public service and Ernst & Young Australia.