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Amnesty International's report into Indigenous homelands.

Amnesty International Chief Salil Shetty recently met with MP Jenny Macklin and opposition MPs in Canberra to demand an end to the Northern Territory’s Growth Towns policy, which encourages the removal of Indigenous people from their traditional homelands into regional hub towns.

After spending 12 days touring the country and meeting local spokespeople and community members living under the N.T Intervention in the Utopia region, Shetty said shocked at what he saw.

“I can’t believe I’m actually in one of the richest countries in the world and you have people, Aboriginal communities here who are living in conditions which are really almost inhumane,” adding “I think it’s quite shocking that you can have this level of poverty and this level of lack of basic facilities.”

Shetty’s visit coincided with last month’s release of Amnesty International’s report The land holds us: Aboriginal Peoples’ right to traditional homelands in the Northern Territory, which recommends urgent political and financial support for homelands and details the ways in which current Government policies undermine the basic rights of Aboriginal people who wish to stay on their homelands, as well as directly ignoring aspects of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Government is currently funding the creation of 20 major growth towns or “mega shires”, which receive almost $800 million in housing, while on remote communities and homelands, no new houses are built and the minimum standard of repairs are maintained.

As Community Leader and Utopia resident Rosalie Kunoth Monks told Salil Shetty, that her people want to stay on the land, but are forced to deal with overcrowding, and lack of access to basic facilities like electricity and water. She believes the Government policy is about forced assimilation and the acquisition of land for mining.

“It’s not that they’re coming here with bulldozers or getting the army to move us it’s that they’re trying to starve us out of our home,” she said.

“They won’t support us becoming sustainable in our own right.

“If you’re made to feel a second class humanity, if it’s not ethnic cleansing please let me know what it is.”

United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People James Anaya has echoed the report by Amnesty, saying the “health of Indigenous people living on homelands is significantly better than those living in larger communities.”

Amnesty International Chief Salil Shetty. Photo: Matt Writtle

As well as maintaining a spiritual and cultural connection to their country, Amnesty International have also supported the voices of many Indigenous Elders who oppose the policy, saying that homelands communities also retain some measure of community control and agency, quoting many examples of strong self-governance models.

“I think there is a fundamental problem. I think at one level the government doesn’t fully understand how central the relationships Aboriginal people have with land,” Shetty said.

“It’s not just the physical aspect. It’s a cultural aspect, it’s their identity, it’s their spirit, and it’s their ancestors.”

A 2005 research paper entitled Healthy Country: Healthy People? Exploring the Health Benefits of Indigenous Land Resource Management shows that Indigenous Australians living on their traditional homelands are significantly healthier and live a lot longer.

Further research conducted by Amnesty International Australia has also shown that homelands can be economically sustainable, forming a central part of the N.T tourism industry and contributing almost 6 percent of the Territory’s economy.

Paddy Gibson some impacts of the N.T Intervention.

Sail Shetty has said that during their discussion, Jenny Macklin admitted that homelands communities were one of the most disadvantaged in Australia, saying

“She has given us a commitment, from the guarantee that these homeland communities will not be pushed out of their land, and that they will get their requisite funding, with a clear plan and budget in the coming months,” he said.

“We have offered to work closely with them, to support and help them, and, at the same time, we will be holding them to account.”

Barbara Shaw, resident of Mt Nancy town camp in Alice Springs, on the effects of the Intervention.

For Professor John Altman’s discussion of the destruction of traditional homelands in The Conversation, click: here.

An expert panel set up by the Australian Government to gage public support for the constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians, will spend the next few months finalising its recommendations.

Although 75 percent of Australians already support some kind of constitutional reform, ideas on the practical effects that constitutional change would bring to the human rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are more contested, with some commentators noting the disparity between existing legislation and the realities of government policies such as the Northern Territory Intervention, (Northern Territory Emergency Response Act 2007), which defy the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

After holding public forums across the country and accepting public submissions, the expert panel will now suggest changes to the Constitution of Australia and the Government will then decide whether or not to propose these to the nation in the form of a referendum. This will not be a simple procedure. Only eight out of forty four referendum questions in Australia’s history have been agreed to.

Members of the expert panel for constitutional recognition of Indigenous peoples.

At present, the Constitution includes racially discriminatory laws that allow states to forbid people of “any race” from voting in elections, and also allows the government to make discriminatory laws for “the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”.

Some believe that legislation like the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 have only so much power, while these laws are still in place. In 2007, the Australian Government suspended this act in order to begin the ongoing Northern Territory Intervention, which saw the compulsory acquisition of previously Aboriginal-owned land, the take-over of Aboriginal service providers, mandatory sexual-health checks for Aboriginal children, the prohibition of alcohol consumption and distribution, and the quarantining of 50 percent of social services payments, that individuals work for, onto a ‘BasicsCard’ which can only be spent on food in two supermarket chains located in larger regional areas.

Uncle Don, an elder from the Deerubbin Local Aboriginal Land Council in Western Sydney says, “When you look at Aboriginal Affairs in Australia, this Constitution is still a racist Constitution…You are living in our circle, but the ‘northern hemisphere-city’ of your thinking is back up there”.

Uncle Don and Jeff McMullen Discuss Constitutional Reform.

Constitutional recognition of Aboriginal Australians may take the form of a ‘statement of recognition’ or ‘statement of values’ to be inserted into a preamble or in the body of the Constitution; the power to make regional agreements with particular Indigenous groups; or it may involve the repeal or amendment of one or both of the racially discriminatory laws.

Some panel experts such as MP Ken Wyatt have said they support Indigenous recognition in the form of a preamble. Although under the exercise of ‘non-judicial provision’, a preamble alone would have no legal bearing. Dr Jeff McMullen, a Journalist and Aboriginal Rights Campaigner, feels that constitutional reform may not affect Australia’s policies anymore than current laws do, “Under our law and under International law, Aboriginal people have the legal right to self-determination. And yet over four years of the Northern Territory Intervention, we have clearly broken that trust. We have ignored our own laws”.

Jeff McMullen discusses constitutional reform.

Nicole Watson is a Lawyer and Research Fellow at Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning who believes the creation of an Australian Bill of Rights or a Treaty would afford Indigenous peoples, and other Australians, appropriate legal protection without the risk that their human rights may be undermined. She states that constitutional recognition may be a “gesture that does not go far enough towards recognising our sovereignty. It does not restore the rights that were taken away by the Howard Government’s amendments to the Native Title Act of 1976. It’s a piecemeal gesture”.

Australia was reviewed this year under the United Nations Human Rights Council, leading the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, to state, “I would urge a fundamental rethink of the measures being taken under the Northern Territory Emergency Response. There should be a major effort to ensure not just consultation with the communities concerned in any future measures, but also their consent and active participation.”

Indigenous performers opening Parliament. Picture: Ray Strange

As Nicole Watson says, “It is disingenuous to even have this constitutional recognition dialogue while we have the Northern Territory Intervention in place. How can you talk about ‘nation-building’ when you have one part of the nation effectively subject to apartheid?”

Unless a proposed Bill of Rights was entered into the Constitution, it too could be easily overwritten by the Government. Chris Graham, Managing Editor of Tracker Magazine says that positive outcomes could potentially be reached through constitutional reform, saying “If they go far enough, constitutional recognition will afford Aboriginal people some more human rights, however, so would a treaty.”

Australia is the only colonised nation that has never signed a treaty with its Indigenous Peoples, and the only Western nation without a Bill of Rights.

Uncle Don and Jeff McMullen Discuss the acquisition of Aboriginal land and financing the NT Intervention.

For SBS World News Australia’s related story on constitutional change click: here.

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