The Guardian August 2, 2000

Government should implement Human Rights recommendations

The United Nations Human Rights Committee has strongly expressed its 
"concern" to the Australian Government on the mandatory sentencing laws of 
WA and the Northern Territory, the mandatory detention of asylum seekers, 
the stolen generations and Native Title legislation. It has concluded that 
all of these are in conflict with the obligations that Australia accepted 
when it ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

Predictably both the Chief Minister of the Northern Territory, Denis Burke, 
and Federal Attorney General Darryl Williams have dismissed the UN 
Commission's findings. Williams claims that it has all been fixed up 
because the Federal Government has made a "deal" with the NT Government to 
provide $20 million to set up what are described as "diversionary programs" 
(see story page 3). Burke, banking on the inherent racism in some sections 
of the Australian community, claims that the UN decisions would not win 
electoral support in Australia.

The fact is that the "diversionary programs" for young offenders do not 
eliminate the evil of mandatory sentencing which has seen outrageous jail 
sentences imposed on mere children for the most paltry of offences. Jail 
terms will be replaced by time spent in a police-run institution and it 
will still take away from judges their responsibility to decide penalties.

Aboriginal children will continue to be snatched from the protection and 
security of their families. The new program with its reliance on 
institutions could become yet another means to break up Aboriginal families 
just as the forcible removal of children in earlier times resulted in the 
tens of thousands of the stolen generations.

For the second time, Greens Senator, Bob Brown will introduce legislation 
into the Senate. His new Bill will ban mandatory sentencing for all 
property crimes, not only for children but for adults as well. The Greens 
legislation is in line with Australia's obligations under the Human Rights 
Covenant but it is unlikely that the Government will accept it.

The Australian Government still asserts that it is not obliged to implement 
the recommendations of the UN Committee although it has ratified the UN 

Despite its protestations, the Howard Government, in fact, supports 
mandatory sentencing just as it refuses to admit to its appalling treatment 
of asylum seekers, the crime of the stolen generations and its 
discriminatory Native Title Amendment Act 1999.

The UN Committee has recommended: a stronger role in decision-making for 
Australia's indigenous people over their traditional lands and natural 
resources; that the titles and interests of indigenous persons in their 
native lands be protected; that efforts be intensified so that victims of 
the policy of removing indigenous children be afforded a proper remedy; 
that measures be taken to give effect to all Covenant rights and freedoms 
and ensure that all persons whose rights and freedoms had been violated 
should have an effective remedy; that legislation regarding mandatory 
imprisonment be reassessed to ensure that all Covenant rights are respected 
and that Australia's policy of mandatory detention of asylum seekers be 
reconsidered and alternative mechanisms implemented to maintain an orderly 
immigration process.

Because of this criticism there are indications that the Australian 
Government is weakening in its support for the United Nations. This is a 
dangerous course for Australia to take. The world is changing and it is no 
longer so easy for conservative governments to ride roughshod over the 
people, including the indigenous people. Australia may well find itself 
more and more isolated from other countries that see in the United Nations, 
with all its weaknesses, an international body in which they have at least 
a voice. It makes decisions and implements educational, health and other 
aid programs which help them meet the onslaught they are experiencing from 
the imperialist powers and the big corporations.

The Australian Government should heed the recommendations of the UN Human 
Rights Committee and not dismiss or bury them in silence. The issues about 
which the UN Committee has had something to say will not go away and many 
Australians will support its recommendations. That is why hundreds of 
thousands demonstrated for Reconciliation a few weeks ago. It is up to the 
Australian people to ensure that the Government acts to right the wrongs.
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