The Secretary General of Amnesty International has likened conditions in Central Australia to the poorest parts of Africa and Asia, and described the gap between rich and poor in this country as the most stark she’s even seen.
Irene Khan — the head of the world’s largest human rights organisation — made her comments during a tour of remote Aboriginal outstations in Central Australia yesterday.
The 2006 Sydney Peace Prize winner is in Australia this week as part of a campaign by Amnesty International to urge the Rudd government to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act to the Northern Territory emergency intervention legislation.
Her trip includes a meeting with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Jenny Macklin in Canberra tomorrow (Tuesday), and an address to the National Press Club later in the week.
Yesterday, Ms Khan flew to the Utopia region of Central Australia — a string of small Aboriginal homeland communities north east of Alice Springs — with a delegation of Amnesty workers, including National Director of Amnesty Australia, Claire Mallinson.
Speaking from Camel Camp, a tiny outstation of about 100 people, 220 kilometres north east of Alice Springs, Ms Khan described the poverty before her as a “tragedy” and a “puzzle”:
The conditions in which people are living here are similar to the conditions you would see in poor countries in Africa or Asia,” Ms Khan said. “But they don’t need to be like this here. That’s the tragedy. That’s the puzzle.
I’m not unfamiliar with poverty. I come from a poor country — Bangladesh. We were in Brisbane earlier this morning… and between Brisbane and this within a few hours you go from the first to the third world.
[I’ve never seen that] in such stark terms.
It is very shocking to see this kind of abject poverty in the heart of a country that is very high on the chart of human developmental indicators.
There are around half a dozen homes in Camel Camp. Some of them have hot water, courtesy of wood-fired hot water heaters built decades ago. The rest do without.
But there are more humpies than houses. Around 100 people live in the community — it’s hopelessly overcrowded, so residents spill out into humpy shelters cobbled together from tree branches and left over building materials.
Ms Khan sat with an Aboriginal elder in her 90s — Topsy Ngale — who lives in one of the humpies. She heard the woman describe her living conditions and the reality of life in Central Australia.
Despite access to government welfare, it’s a life trapped in abject poverty. Clearly moved by what she saw, Ms Khan said it was wrong to measure poverty simply by income.
“You measure poverty by the discrimination people suffer, by the deprivation in which they live, by the insecurity that they suffer, and their voicelessness — not being heard, being excluded from decision-making, from participation,” she said.
“I think those are features of poverty. It’s not about justifying what is or isn’t there. It’s about the reality. And the reality of what we see here is people are living in very desperate conditions.”
Ms Khan said the solution lay in listening to the people living the nightmare.
“One needs to analyse and find out what’s happening. As far as these people are concerned, from what they have said, they feel they are not being heard.”
But they were heard, at least by the Amnesty International delegation. Before Camel Camp, Ms Khan and Ms Mallinson met with dozens of elders from the Utopia region at Arlparra, the small town that services the region.
Utopia’s most famous resident — Rosalie Kunoth Monks, the star of the 1950s film Jedda — told the gathering that Aboriginal culture was still strong with her people, that they would not surrender their land or their rights, and they would die before they suffered forced assimilation.
“The Utopia region is a decentralised community of 16 homelands. We live on our homelands by choice, as our forefathers did for thousands of years,” Ms Kunoth Monks said:
We have our language. We have our culture, and the practices of that culture. And we have responsibility to our country. We have our family responsibilities and the ceremonies. We do not want to relocate to one large community. That’s what the… government is trying to make us do. And because we won’t do it, we’re being punished.
They might as well line us up against this wall and shoot us, because we ain’t going nowhere. We are not about to lay down and die.
If the government is not willing to assist us, we need to tell our stories outside of Australia.
Harold Nelson, the traditional owner of the land around Arlparra also addressed the meeting. Mid-sentence he removed his Basics Card from his pocket — the card used to control Aboriginal people’s spending under the NT emergency intervention — and held it in the air. “The government people, they’re playing up. They’re rubbish. They’re lying. It’s shocking.”
Ms Khan said the message from Aboriginal was clear.
“It’s a very tough life here. I heard [people] speak of their anger, their frustration, their despair, of being pulled apart from their homelands through policies they feel are unjust, unfairly applied.
“I will be spending the next few days listening to more people… [and then] moving to Canberra and meeting with the government.”
There, Ms Khan will meet with Jenny Macklin about the NTER measures, and the government’s response to the enduring poverty in Aboriginal Australia.
Ms Khan said she would keep an open mind on the intervention measures until her meeting with Macklin, however she did have a message for the government on the reinstatement of the Racial Discrimination Act.
“Amnesty International has been working on this issue for some time. I think our position is pretty clear,” she said. “Any measures need to be in line with international standards set by the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and on the Australian legislation on racial discrimination. That’s been our position, that remains our position.”
Ms Khan also had a message for the Australian people more generally.
“I believe the Australian people have an innate sense of fairness — what is fair and what is unfair. I would tell the Australian people to call on those values of fairness to [consider] whether it is fair that in a country as wealthy as Australia, as well developed as Australia, there should be such disparity and equality.”