Earlier this week Aboriginal people from the Northern Territory announced that they would make a “Request for Urgent Action” to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). That Request will be considered by the CERD when next it meets in Geneva later this month.

This application was foreshadowed by George Newhouse in Crikey in late October last year. As he noted then:

Now that the federal government has rejected the findings of its own review board, Indigenous Australians like Barbara Shaw find themselves with no other recourse than to complain to the United Nations.

People don’t often do long road trips across Australia nowadays — particularly from Alice Springs to Canberra — most of us just jump in a plane to Sydney then catch the shuttle to the capital. But if you are a mob of blackfellas from the NT who started off poor, and are all the poorer for Macklin’s income-management regime which requires that you go cap-in-hand to Centrelink to spend your welfare money on discretionary things like airfares then you don’t have much choice other than to drive.

Which is what Barbara Shaw and a group of friends from the NT did a week or so ago — they chucked their money together, hired a small bus and set off to Canberra to make their voices heard about the NT Intervention. Two nights and three days later they drove into Canberra. Tomorrow they’ll turn around and do the return trip.

Johnny “Hooker Creek” Miller Japangardi and his wife Peggy Brown Nampijimpa are both members of the Order of Australia, that honour awarded for their long-time work with the Mount Theo substance abuse prevention program based here at Yuendumu.

Japangardi and Nampijimpa have joined Barbara Shaw and seventeen other Aboriginal people from across the NT in putting their names to the Request to the CERD committee.

Their Request for Urgent Action to the CERD committee is summarised as:

…aris[ing] from the flagrant breach by Australia of its obligations under the Race Convention … the Authors consider that it should remain a matter of serious concern to the international community that legislation overriding the race Convention can be implemented by the State party [Australia] with impunity. That is particularly the case when it concerns the fundamental human rights of Aboriginal people.

The Request submits that it is both the NT Intervention legislation, and the subsequent actions by Government and the readily foreseeable consequences of that legislation that have breached the race Convention and constitute continuing breaches of Australia’s obligations and that they:

…continue to constitute serious, massive and persistent racial discrimination against Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory and have constituted and continue multiple violations of the Race Convention.

The Request details the allegations of “serious, massive and persistent” racial discrimination and notes that one consequence of the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act is that it has led:

…Aboriginal people to perceive that it is acceptable and appropriate to discriminate against Aboriginal people from the NT and that they are less worthy of legislative protections afforded to other Australians.

…the NT Intervention has profoundly undermined the relationship between Aboriginal people of the NT and the Australian Government, having resulted in distrust, hostility and suspicion.

The Request particularises claims of 28 breaches of Australia’s responsibilities under 10 Articles or sub-Articles of the Race Convention, including provisions that relate to equality before the law, the right to participate in public affairs, the right to own property and the effective protection, by the Australian Government, of remedies against discrimination and the failure to provide effective measures to combat prejudice.

The Request is particularly forceful in relation to the notion that the removal of the Racial Discrimination Act and other actions related to the NT Intervention were “special measures” and that these “special measures” failed to meet the criteria for justification of application of such measures on a number of grounds.

The Request seeks a recommendation from the CERD Committee that it express its concerns (to the Australian Government) and make recommendations that the Australian Government:

(a) immediately take all necessary steps to bring an end to the exclusion of the Racial Discrimination Act in respect of the NT Intervention; and

(b) undertake that there will be no further implementation of the NT Intervention…until the Committee is satisfied that each of the measures is properly a “special measure” for the purposes of the Race Convention.

As George Newhouse noted in Crikey last October:

Barbara Shaw knows that Kevin Rudd is a former diplomat who understands the damage to Australia’s standing internationally if our nation were to join the ranks of Ethiopia, Belize, Chile, Nicaragua, Philippines, Brazil and Peru which are currently subject to CERD’s Early-Warning Measures and Urgent Procedures

And Rudd’s bureaucrats will have their work cut out for them. Relationships between Australia and the CERD Committee were poisoned during the Howard years, initially by the Howard Government’s outrage that a UN Committee would deign to examine, and then criticise its action in relation to racial affairs. As David Marr wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2005 on Australia’s response to an earlier CERD committee report:

The committee’s report … in 2000 produced one of the great dummy spits of the Howard year, with the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, roaring: “We won’t cop it any longer. We are a democratically elected government in one of the most liberal and democratic countries you will find on Earth. And if the United Nations committee wants to play domestic politics here in Australia, then it will end up with a bloody nose.”

By 2005 many of the Australian NGO’s that had previously provided effective representation of the interests of Aboriginal Australians at the UN had either been neutered or, like the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, defunded by the Howard Government. ATSIC was soon for the chop.

Notwithstanding these disadvantages, Aboriginal interests prevailed. Marr reports that in March 2005 the CERD Committee:

…again gave Australia the thumbs-down. The language was far more diplomatic this time. Half a dozen positive findings were followed by a list of nineteen “concerns and recommendations”. Many had been raised before in 2000. ATSIC, native title, stolen generation, reconciliation, constitutional protection from racial discrimination, mandatory sentencing, the over-representation of Aborigines in prisons and the fate of HREOC may be dead issues in politics back home, but they’re still alive in Geneva.

Barbara Shaw and the twenty countrymen and women that have joined her in the Request for Urgent Action to the CERD Committee may well thank John Howard and his minions for their years of antagonism of the UN and its Committees. If nothing else the Howard years drew attention to the many egregious failings by his governments to accord equality and justice to Aboriginal people.

How the Rudd Government responds to the Request to the CERD will be a real measure of any distinction between the Rudd and Howard governments and how they treat Aboriginal people in this country.

He can’t do much worse.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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