Yesterday marked the four-year anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples. The declaration was adopted on the 13th of September 2007, over 20 years after it was initially drafted in consultation with Indigenous groups and spokespeople across the world.
The non-binding document describes the rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, as well as their rights to express their cultures, identities and languages, while it also sets a universal standard for employment, education and health outcomes within Indigenous communities.
Australia, under the Howard Government, along with Canada, New Zealand and the United States originally voted against the Declaration, which was endorsed by 143 other nations. At the time, some conservative Australian political figures and the media voiced their concerns that the Declaration’s definition of self-determination would mean “we are prepared to have a separate Indigenous state”, as Alexander Downer stated in The Age.
After Kevin Rudd’s 2008 election promise to support the UN Declaration, the Australian Government officially endorsed it on the 3rd of April 2009, in a statement to Parliament by Minister for Families, Housing, Community Service and Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin. Quoting the numerous articles in the Declaration that condemn forced assimilation and the destruction of Indigenous culture, as well as the removal of peoples from their lands, Jenny Macklin stated “Today Australia takes another important step to make sure that the flawed policies of the past will never be re-visited”.
In a joint statement to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Relating to the Declaration, held earlier this year, Deputy Secretary of the Department of FaHCSIA Cath Halbert, and Chairperson of the Torres Strait Regional Authority John Toshie Kris, were keen to stress the Australian Government’s continued support of the Declaration, saying “Australia’s Indigenous policies are consistent with the spirit of the Declaration…the Australian Government has worked hard to ensure that our commitment to open and collaborative engagement with Indigenous Australians is upheld.”
But UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues Professor James Anaya, has reported that Australia’s legal and policy landscape still needs reform, recommending that “Commonwealth and State Governments should review all legislation, policies, and programs that affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, in light of the Declaration”. Upon visiting Australia in April of this year, his second trip to Australia in two years, Professor Anaya noted the continued importance of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, stating the Federal Government “should seek to fold into its initiatives the goal of advancing indigenous self-determination, in particular by encouraging indigenous self-governance at the local level, ensuring indigenous participation in the design, delivery, and monitoring of programs, and promoting culturally-appropriate programs that incorporate or build on indigenous peoples’ own initiatives. Additionally, further efforts are needed to secure indigenous peoples’ rights over lands, resources and heritage sites”.
While the Declaration is non-legally binding, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Social Justice Commissioner Mick Gooda sees the article as illustrative of a moral framework through which Governments should act, saying “It is only when we can see these articles being translated from abstract concepts to practical improvements in our lives that the spirit and intent of the Declaration will be realised”.
An ABC report announcing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and Australia’s then dissent.