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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.

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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.

A mural celebrating the ideal of equality, in Redfern, South Sydney.

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.

For more information on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, click: here, and here.

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