Australia: UN urges rethink of policies on indigenous peoples and asylum-seekers

The Australian aboriginal flag flying in Victoria Square, Adelaide. Photo: Peripitus

25 May 2011 – While stressing Australia’s long-standing commitment to human rights, a top United Nations official today said the country is failing to protect certain groups and urged it to rethink its policies towards indigenous peoples and asylum-seekers.

“The issues of indigenous disadvantage and the treatment of asylum-seekers need to be tackled through a human rights-based approach, not driven by short-term electoral advantage and political goals,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told a press conference in Canberra at the end of her six-day visit.

Ms. Pillay noted that the treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples and asylum-seekers are the two main human rights issues which are a constant source of friction in the country and of attention abroad.

She welcomed the advances the Government has made in addressing some of the disadvantages faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including the significant investment being made to improve their health and education.

“However, I believe these efforts are being undermined by policies that fail to recognize the right to self-determination for indigenous people,” she stated, adding that this is a key element of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Australia, along with Canada, New Zealand and the United States, originally voted against the declaration when it was adopted by the General Assembly in September 2007 after more than two decades of debate.

All four countries have subsequently endorsed the non-binding text that sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues.

Ms. Pillay said that in her discussions with Aboriginal people, she could sense the “deep hurt and pain” they have suffered due to Government policies that are imposed on them, and noted that their efforts to improve their communities are often “stifled by inappropriate and inflexible policies” that fail to empower local solutions.

She also urged a “fundamental rethink” of the measures being taken under the Northern Territory Emergency Response – a set of laws and related Government initiatives implemented in 2007 that were aimed at addressing conditions faced by indigenous peoples in that region of the country but which also drew heavy criticism for being discriminatory.

Another major concern highlighted by the High Commissioner is Australia’s mandatory immigration detention regime, by which thousands of men, women and children are held for prolonged periods of time, and which has for many years “cast a shadow” over the country’s human rights record.

“During my visit to immigration detention centres in Darwin, I saw the grim despondency of asylum seekers, waiting for months, or in some cases well over a year, to be released,” she stated. “These people, who arrive with such relief and hope after experiencing trauma in their home countries, should not be treated in this way.”

Ms. Pillay said the consequence of the constant political refrain that Australia is being “flooded” by people who are “queue jumpers” has resulted in a stigmatization of an entire group of people, irrespective of where they have come from or what dangers they may have fled.

“I urge the leaders of all Australia’s political parties to take a principled and courageous stand to break this ingrained political habit of demonizing asylum-seekers.”


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