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Incorporating UNDRIP into Australian law would kickstart important progress

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice

Given the challenges we face collectively, it is all too seldom that the world's First Nations peoples are able to come together to develop shared solutions. When we do, we achieve great things.

Fourteen years ago today, the work of a group of indigenous peoples from all around the globe - including mob from my hometown, Fitzroy Crossing - culminated in a momentous event. On September 13, 2007, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.

Under the declaration, our rights to education, health, housing and other basic needs essential to a life well lived are understood as inextricable from our rights to self-determination, participation in decision-making, respect for and protection of culture, and equality and non-discrimination.

The declaration affirms our rights to make our own decisions, to control our own organisations, to put in place governance bodies grounded in our culture, and to restore our societal and cultural structures, practices and knowledge systems, to emancipate ourselves from the inequalities we face.

Only four nations voted against the resolution - Australia, Canada, Aotearoa/New Zealand and the United States. While in the three years that followed all four states ultimately agreed to "support" the declaration, over the past decade this support has been largely cosmetic.

On July 24, 2017, almost a decade after the adoption of the declaration by the UN General Assembly, Australia put forward an ultimately successful bid for a seat on the Human Rights Council for a three-year term. In this statement, the Australian government pledged to "support the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in both word and deed, including the promotion of the declaration's principles through national engagement", which would "draw connections between national activity and the principles of the declaration".

While the declaration was mentioned only once up to 2017, and only once again since, in any of our prime ministers' Closing the Gap reports, it is pleasing to see that with the new Partnership Agreement on Closing the Gap coming into force, the declaration is covered in detail in some state Closing the Gap Implementation Plans.

This is a welcome development, but it is merely a starting point. While all four countries who voted against the declaration in 2007 have been more or less inert with respect to implementation over the past decade, this is now changing rapidly.

In Canada, on June 21 this year Bill C-15 received royal assent, affirming the declaration as a universal international human rights instrument with application in Canadian law and requiring the government of Canada to take all measures necessary to ensure the laws of Canada are consistent with the declaration and to prepare and implement an action plan to achieve its objectives. The next step will involve engagement with Indigenous partners to identify priorities, actions and measures for aligning federal laws with the declaration over time. The act requires that the action plan be developed by June 21, 2023.

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, progress is also being made, with its government having in 2019 staked its intention to develop a national plan to implement the declaration, and the development of a technical working group report He Puapua which outlines what a pathway forward might look like. Consultations are currently underway with Kiwi and Maori organisations, and consultations with the wider public are due to commence early in the new year, with a view to a plan for how the country will meet commitments under the declaration being produced by the end of 2022.

We are in a moment of global reckoning on multiple fronts, all underscored by the failure of current systems to address entrenched inequalities. Australia risks falling behind if it does not address them.

I believe in this country. We have within us a rich progressive tradition on both sides of the aisle. We were a founding member of the United Nations. We are the people who voted in overwhelming numbers to count First Nations people as equals in 1967. Today we are the nation who Reconciliation Australia polled at 81 per cent in the shared belief that it is important to protect an Indigenous body within the constitution, so it can't be removed by any government.

Incorporating UNDRIP into the structures of this nation - its laws, policies and institutions - would be a strong commitment from all Australian governments to working in genuine partnership with First Nations people to respond to our needs and aspirations.

Like the Uluru Statement, like the calls from First Nations women and girls in my Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women's Voices) report, the declaration is a beacon that can guide us on our way to reconciliation and to a better and fairer future.

Together, we can become that Australia. The first step would be for the Australian government to commit to a co-design process with First Nations people to progress implementation of the declaration in Australia.

The time to act is now.

Published in Canberra Times
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Ms June Oscar AO, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice