Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.

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Issue #1503      1 June 2011

UN High Commissioner visit and the NT Intervention

Australia is one of those developed countries with a government that presumes to lecture others about human rights. When Prime Minister Gillard recently visited China, for example, there was the expectation in conservative circles and the corporate media that she would take her counterpart aside for a tongue lashing about human rights. In interviews following the predicted private encounter, she implied that such “frank” discussions took place.

It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall at exchanges of this nature because, when it comes to human rights, the shame of the Australian government is now plain for the whole world to see. It would be safe to assume that the recipient of Australian government criticism would reply with an eloquent expression roughly translating to “who the hell are you to lecture us on human rights?”

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, visited Australia last week and delivered a diplomatic rebuke over two of the country’s most glaring, ongoing human rights scandals. The major concerns of the South African former high court judge were the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers in detention (see Asylum seekers policies arousing storm of criticism) and the Northern Territory Intervention. The Howard era policy dating from 2007 is approaching its 2012 “sunset clause” and assessments of the controversial invasion of remote Aboriginal communities are being drawn up. Alternatives are being considered.

True to form, opposition leader Tony Abbott is calling for a “second intervention” for the further humiliation and dispossession of Aboriginal people. Ms Pillay said that Aboriginal people had told her that they were coming under increased pressure from the Gillard government to sign 99-year leases over their land. “They see it as a land grab,” the High Commissioner noted.

Ms Pillay would see the same process taking place all over the world. Indigenous people are being moved off their traditional land to make way for corporate interests. In Colombia a brutal war is being waged against rural communities by paramilitaries and the state’s own armed forces. In Australia, remote communities are being made unviable. The question is then put on the agenda of how to shut them down and move the inhabitants to Alice Springs and other regional centres. Land owned by communities is transferred to private owners who can sell up and move on.

Howard’s intervention was part of this strategy. It was maintained by Labor because they, too, are carrying out the orders of corporations in the mining sector. Differences in approach are subtle. The Liberals suspended the Racial Discrimination Act to impose measures like welfare payment quarantining; Labor restored the Act by extending the punitive measure to all welfare recipients in the Northern Territory.

The UN High Commissioner was handed a petition in Darwin with the signatures of 6,500 Australians calling for the restoration of the rights of Aboriginal people caught up in the intervention. The policy had already been condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, Professor James Anaya.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Social Justice commissioner Mick Gooda told the media recently that the intervention and its authoritarian methods will not be missed. He hopes its demise will improve communications between government bureaucracies and Aboriginal communities.

“Government agencies go into a community like Mutitujulu near Uluru and talk to the service providers, but not to the people,” Mr Gooda told The Sydney Morning Herald. He noted that the looming expiry date for the legislation has prompted another race against time. He wonders what will happen to the funding offered as a sweetener to the very bitter intervention medicine. “You have a lot of organisations receiving money under the intervention … There is a need for certainty around the funding of programs, including the Indigenous housing program and the $150 million Alice Springs transformation.”

It’s a safe bet that funding to programs seeking to draw Aboriginal people away from their traditional lands and into urban accommodation will continue to be funded. What is not known is precisely what overarching policy will replace the intervention to continue the land grab it represents. Other funding will probably be slashed as part of the sacrifice to produce a federal budget surplus. One thing is certain; the current situation of dispossession and community breakdown will not be turned around without a fight and massive solidarity from non-Aboriginal Australians.  

Next article – Imperialism: Bankers, drug wars and genocide

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