The EU must not back down on human rights

Series Title
Series Details 20/03/97, Volume 3, Number 11
Publication Date 20/03/1997
Content Type

Date: 20/03/1997

By Galarrwuy Yunupingu

THE Australian government's refusal to sign a proposed Australia-EU trade agreement because it contains European Union human rights provisions is of grave concern to the country's indigenous population.

Indigenous Australians acknowledge that, in general, the country's human rights record is very good. However, this is not reflected in the treatment of indigenous peoples.

Not only do all the indicators of economic, social and cultural well-being reveal disturbing levels of disadvantage, but legitimate land rights (native title) recognised by the high court of Australia in 1992 and 1996 are also currently under attack and are threatened with legislative extinguishment.

The government's refusal to sign the Australia-EU framework agreement comes approximately one year into the life of the conservative Liberal and Country Party coalition government led by Prime Minister John Howard.

From the day of the coalition election victory, Aboriginal affairs have been singled out as an easy target. Widespread budget cuts and Draconian administrative measures to curtail the activities of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission - the elected funding body for Aboriginal affairs - were immediately introduced.

A raging 'race debate' triggered by the election of a previously unknown fish and chip shop proprietor Pauline Hansen - who was expelled from the Liberal Party for racist campaigning in the run-up to the 1996 election - has resulted in an upsurge in reported racist attacks.

Social discord and threats of physical violence against non-white Australians have understandably attracted concern and criticism from the country's Asian neighbours.

The prime minister's refusal to repudiate immediately and categorically the extreme right-wing views of Hansen has, by default, permitted racism to gain a level of public acceptance and prominence unknown for decades.

In a national political climate in which black-bashing has now reached a scale where, as an electoral tactic, the chief minister of the Northern Territory publicly accused me of being a “despicable individual” and a “whinging, whining, carping black”, Australia has witnessed extraordinarily levels of hysteria and misinformation following the most recent high court decision on native title in December 1996.

Native title was first recognised by the high court's Mabo decision of 1992, which overturned the legal fiction of terra nullius (land belonging to no one) which had underpinned the dispossession of indigenous Australians for over 200 years.

The high court decided that native title was a unique set of rights recognised by common law and determined by reference to the indigenous laws establishing it.

Native title continues to exist where there is an ongoing connection to the country and where no action has been taken, such as granting of freehold title, which is clearly inconsistent with its continuation.

The Mabo decision was primarily concerned with native title on crown land and did not resolve whether it could continue to coexist with pastoral leases.

The recent high court decision on the Wik case in December 1996 decided that it could. It ruled that where there was any conflict between a pastoralist's right and native title rights, the pastoralist's rights prevailed.

This balanced judicial determination was in part based on the history of the pastoral lease which was introduced into Australia in the mid-19th century. The high court accepted the argument that pastoral leases were established for exclusive rights of pasturage, not exclusive rights of occupation, as a way to regulate squatters occupying huge tracts of lands - some equivalent to the size of Belgium - for the purpose of grazing cattle.

In January 1997, in response to an orchestrated attack on the high court's Wik decision by lobby groups and key coalition politicians at state and federal levels, the prime minister refused to rule out amending Australia's Racial Discrimination Act to enable the legislative extinguishment of native title.

Understandably, ethnic, religious and indigenous leaders have expressed their concern.

Angela Chan, chairperson of the Ethnic Communities Council of New South Wales, commenting on the orchestrated campaign of prejudice against Aboriginal people since the Wik decision, said: “If the government can pick and choose who the Racial Discrimination Act applies to, you have to ask the question: who will be the next group of Australians to be discriminated against by a coalition of government and business interests?”

Faced with the threat of having our native title rights removed by an act of parliament, and knowing that all social economic, cultural and health indicators reveal appalling living standards for indigenous Australians, is it any surprise that we would appeal to the European Union to stand firm on human rights?

Just what does the Australian government have to hide? Has Australia any right to retreat from the high human rights standards it imposes and expects from other nations?

It should not be forgotten that Australia was just one of many nations that helped to bring about the change of regime in South Africa by the imposition of concerted international pressure and economic sanctions against the former apartheid regime.

Likewise, it should not be forgotten that Australia is a signatory to many international instruments which enshrine the principles of human rights included in the proposed Australia-EU framework agreement.

Australia's international commitments include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (equality before the law and the right to “enjoy their own culture”); the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the right to the enjoyment of physical and mental health); the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination (comprehensive protection of rights enshrined in Australia's Racial Discrimination Act); and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (including the right to life and survival, the right “to preserve his or her identity” and the right “not to be separated from his or her parents against their will”).

Consider the statistics: Aboriginal deaths in custody are increasing at an alarming rate. In 1991, there were 13 deaths in custody. In 1996, there were 18. In the first six weeks of 1997 alone, there were five.

Incarceration rates for indigenous people are also rising. Aboriginal people are now 18 times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Aboriginal people and Aboriginal children between the ages of ten and 14 are 32 times more likely to be charged by the police.

The average life expectancy of an indigenous person is 17 years less than that of a non-indigenous person. Aboriginal adults in their 40s and 50s are dying at ten times the national rate. The infant mortality rate for indigenous children is three times that of non-indigenous children. The maternal mortality rate for indigenous women is five times higher than that of non-indigenous women and the incidence of illnesses such as tuberculosis, leprosy, hepatitis and sexually transmitted diseases is ten times greater among indigenous people than among the rest of the population.

Only 25&percent; of Aboriginal students finish secondary school compared to 77&percent; of non-Aboriginal pupils and only 0.5&percent; of Aboriginal people have post-school qualifications.

The unemployment rate for indigenous people is 38&percent; compared to a general rate of 8.6&percent;. The average income of Aboriginal people is only 65&percent; of that of the general population.

While indigenous families represent only 1.4&percent; of all families in Australia, they account for 22&percent; of homeless families and 38&percent; of those living in improvised dwellings.

Australia's indigenous peoples are not asking or expecting the urgency provisions in the Australia-EU agreement to be invoked. Nor are we asking for trade or political sanctions to be deployed against the Australian government.

But we do insist on domestic and international vigilance to ensure our human rights are not eroded and that all measures are taken to alleviate the suffering of the people who are the real stories behind the statistics.

The real stories are of real people being locked out of their traditional country and being forced to live under inhuman conditions. The real stories are of old people fighting all their lives for the land which is at the centre of their being, the centre of their meaning and the reason for their existence.

After 200 years, we finally have legal recognition of what we already knew - that Australia is Aboriginal country - but the government appears unwilling to accept this.

We call on the European Union to stand firm against any calls to remove or amend human rights clauses from international agreements.

Galarrwuy Yunupingu is chairman of the Northern Land Council, an organisation campaigning for Aboriginal people's rights in Australia.

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