It took almost three years for the Howard government to get a “please explain” from the United Nations on its treatment of Aboriginal people. Kevin Rudd’s administration looks like achieving it less than two.

Earlier this week, a group of human rights lawyers lodged a complaint against the Northern Territory intervention with the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

It’s a comprehensive document. I dare say the members of the intervention cheer squad within the government, the opposition and the media will shrink with fright if they ever actually read the 63 page document, which we all know will never happen. You can read it on the National Indigenous Times website.

It calls on the UN to recommend the Australian Government, among other things, reinstate the Racial Discriminate Act as part of the NT intervention. In other words, it calls for an “intervention intervention”.

The authors of the report contend that the “Northern Territory Intervention legislation has constituted and continues to constitute serious, massive and persistent racial discrimination against Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and has constituted and continues to constitute multiple violations of the Race Convention”. Them’s fighting words.

The complaint calls for “Urgent Action” on the part of the CERD, which means if accepted it should all be sorted by about mid-year (no irony intended).

One of the lead counsels on the complaint is none other than George Newhouse. Ring any bells? Newhouse is the guy who took on Malcolm Turnbull  (and nearly won) in the seat of Wentworth at the last election. Newhouse is an influential figure in the ALP.

Secondly, the complaint has the backing of some very well respected organisations, such as the Australian Indigenous Doctor’s Association (whose research on the harmful affects of the intervention is quoted throughout the document).

Granted, the Rudd government is now in hot water over a policy that was created by the Liberals. But that’s hardly a defence. The enabling legislation for the intervention was unanimously supported by Labor in Opposition. And in case no-one’s noticed, Kevin Rudd has been in the Lodge for over a year now, yet he’s continued the intervention unaltered, despite funding a $3 million review which recommended it be changed.

The CERD, as it’s known, is the committee within the UN that guards over the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, to which Australia is a signatory. The CERD’s directions are non-binding, but they have the potential to be enormously embarrassing, particularly for a Prime Minister who took his cue from his environment minister and spent the past year strutting the world stage in a pair of pants with the word “sorry” emblazoned on them. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Broadly speaking, the CERD’s job is to whack member states who behave like racist pigs. And on that front, Australia has quite the history. We hold the distinction of being the first western nation on earth to be issued a ‘please explain’ before the CERD under the UN’s “urgent action” provisions.

Indeed, in 1999, the CERD went to the extraordinary lengths of holding a running brief on the Australian Government over its attempts to wipe out the Native Title Act. The amendments, it’s worth noting, were created by the Liberals and supported by Labor (sound familiar). My favourite part about that shining chapter in our rights history is that we got a bollocking from a Chinese member of the committee.

Since then, Australia has also been whacked by the UN for mandatory sentencing laws in the NT and WA (introduced by Labor and Liberal); humiliated for arguing for the right to retain a grandstand in Toowoomba entitled “Nigger Brown” (supported by Labor and Liberal); and walloped for the abolition of ATSIC (proposed by Labor and enacted by the Liberals) despite a $2 million government review recommending reform (also sound familiar?).

And that’s just over our “dealings with the natives” (which was so bad that in 1999, Labor actually invited the CERD to visit Australia and investigate the Liberals — hilarious). Throw in our treatment of asylum seekers and we’ve got a human rights record unparalleled by any other western nation on Earth. Which is why when Australia arrives at the UN to start lecturing others about their human rights abuses, the response is a mixture of people politely clearing their throats, and others falling off their chairs laughing.

Most interesting in all this will be the Rudd government’s response. For a start, its certain to argue the complaint is not urgent at all. Sure, some people in remote communities are starving, and the intervention is actually causing “physical harm”. But that doesn’t make it urgent. Right?

When that fails, the government will go behind closed doors try to dismiss the complaint as the ravings of some tree-hugging hippies. But the team behind this complaint are far too credible. So the upshot is, the Rudd government will have to try and defend the NT intervention on its merits. Oh, the humanity.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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