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How to take the UN Indigenous report card

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

Topic tags: UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Human Rights, Northern Territory Intervention



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Existing comments

Did James Anaya tell us anything we have not observed since 1788? We have agonised over these problems for so long that we can swallow them with our corn-flakes in the morning and our beer in the evening. It seems to be another case of the blame game. What do we all do in on our private lives to right the wrongs?

Ray O'Donoghue | 03 September 2009  

ABC Radio National's 'Encounter' report on development projects in East Timor found that old-style 'aid' projects which did not involve East Timorese citizens in planning or decision-making, did not engage citizens to participate or own the project, in large measure failed.

James Anaya uses terms like 'autonomy' and 'self-determination'. He's not telling us anything we don't already know.

If our taxpayer-funded leaders do try to throw his report to the bin, they may find that their aim is a bit awry due to all the beams in their eyes.

David Arthur | 03 September 2009  

The D-word seems to have everyone choking on silly phrases to distance themselves from discrimination. Disturbingly it was only Tony Abbot who could accept that the terms and practices of the Intervention were discriminatory and propose a logical solution which was to extend the quarantining of welfare to all recipients. Sadly, a suggestion which can only be made from opposition: I doubt he would have suggested this while in Government.

Jeff Mueller | 03 September 2009  

Thank you, Binoy Kampmark, for such a well-balanced and necessary comment on the protests made against Anaya's report.

As the three comments on this article preceding my own, all say in different words, we are already aware of the concerns Anaya correctly emphasised. Why then the 'howl of protest'?

A tragic observation can be made about the Australian response to any external commentary which could possibly be regarded as negative. No matter how much such an international comment may reflect opinion frequently voiced by Australian commentators, as a nation we always jump to our own defence.

How can Australia expect to be taken seriously internationally when we are so quick to take offence? Surely a more mature response to Anaya's report is to acknowledge its validity, perhaps emphasising that it does indeed reflect a lot of Australian opinion, and maintain the focus on righting problems instead of defending against imagined slights.

Ian Fraser | 06 September 2009  

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