UN rights chief criticizes Australia indigenous, asylum policies

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[JURIST] UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay [official profile] on Wednesday a rebuked [text] Australia for its political, rather than human rights based approach to indigenous people and asylum-seekers. Although she criticized some of the nation’s practices, she had considerable praise for “a 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 centers for months or years. She recommended greater communication with both groups, a revamp of how the Aborigine Northern Territory is handled, and for political leaders to quit “demonizing” refugees and immigrants.

In recent years, the Australian government has recognized the long history of discrimination and disadvantage among its native citizens, although its efforts have not always resulted in better conditions. Last year, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard [official website] announced a national referendum [JURIST report] to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in the Australian Constitution. In August 2010, Amnesty International Australia (AIA) [advocacy website] criticized the racial discrimination [JURIST report] 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 [texts]. In June, the Australian government reinstated its previously suspended Racial Discrimination Act [JURIST report] in the Northern Territory, which allows governmental authorities to regulate how welfare money is spent by the indigenous people of the country. UN special rapporteur James Anaya condemned the law, calling it problematic from a human rights point of view. In 2009, Australia endorsed [JURIST report] the aforementioned Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, which reversed the position held by previous Australian governments. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd championed the cause of improved living conditions for and relations with Australia’s indigenous population during his term in office and offered an official apology on behalf of the federal government in February 2008 for past mistreatment to the nation’s indigenous population.

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