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Speech: Commissioner appears before CERD Committee at the UN (2010)

Race Discrimination

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Commissioner appears before CERD Committee at the UN

Graeme Innes AM
Race Discrimination
Australian Human Rights Commission

I acknowledge the Chair and CERD Committee, the Australian Government delegation, and the Australian NGO delegation, in particular Dr Djiniyini Gondarra from East Arnhemland, and Rosie Kunoth Monks from Utopia.

The Commission Shadow Report recognises, and welcomes, the Government's positive achievements addressing racial inequality in Australia. We recognise the constraints on Government of caretaker convention. And we welcome their commitment to maximise their participation in this session.

I'll make three brief observations, and then turn to key issues from the Commission report. First, I'd be interested to know what portion of Australian Government funding, listed in the CERD report, is dedicated specifically to a rights based approach, or to the elimination of racial discrimination, as opposed to broader government policy agendas.

Second, both the Commission Shadow Report, and the NGO Shadow, have identified a strong need for a domestic implementation mechanism for CERD. This could assist in addressing the complexities of coordinating implementation across Australia's Federal system that have been noted by Committee members.

Third, in 2009 there was a National Human Rights Consultation, conducted by an independent panel. The Commission welcomed this major initiative from Government. The Commission held preparation sessions to assist communities engage meaningfully in the consultation process. We have a clear sense of what the Australian community wanted. The Government view that Australia is not ready for a Bill of Rights was not what we heard from the community. We heard strong support for improved protections, particularly for an enshrined Bill of Rights. Interestingly, the sizeable group of community members who insisted, quite stubbornly, that Australia already has a Bill of Rights, as part of it’s legal framework, made it abundantly clear that human rights education deserves greater attention and investment. We welcome the Human Rights Framework, but it is only a small first step.

I now turn to Rosie and Djiniyini, two Aboriginal elders who have traveled from Central Australia to deliver an urgent message about the survival of their Aboriginal brothers and sisters, and sons and daughters, living under the Northern Territory Emergency Response. You have both told me you decided to participate because you hoped it could ease your own, and your communities, despair.  You both told me you have felt a need to step back from developments with the Northern Territory Intervention, to see and I quote “what is left of us mob”.

Rosie and Djiniyini, you are descendants of ancient peoples, the world’s oldest continuing culture, and you do not need me, or the Australian Government, to speak for you.  But may I repeat your messages:

You did not consent to the Northern Territory Intervention. 

You said that the Intervention is not a special measure.

You said that it is not a positive or concrete measure to strengthen your communities, culture or customary practice. It has had the opposite effect.  It has removed people from their lands, and their own distinct practices and world values. And you said that without land and community at your spiritual centre, every Aboriginal person in Australia will be lost.

Thank you for coming, and giving those messages.

The Commission has a clear position on the application of special measures under the new and previous legislation in the Northern Territory. It is in our report.  But to respond to government, the provision of standard services to Aboriginal communities, that are available to ALL other Australian citizens, cannot be properly considered as special measures. It’s wrong thinking, and disregards the rights, and diminishes the citizenship, of Aboriginal Australians.

The negative impacts of the Intervention will be long lasting. Recovery, if possible at all, is not achievable until protections against racial discrimination are guaranteed through the Australian Constitution.  Otherwise, as Aboriginal Australians have sorely learned from lived experience, the Racial Discrimination Act can be suspended tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

Despite welcomed reforms under Australia's Native Title Act, claims continue to be complex, highly adversarial, costly and inefficient. How is the Australian Government going to deliver land justice for Aboriginal communities?  That is, to empower the Native Title system to progress the land, economic, social and cultural aspirations of Indigenous people? 

The development of the National Congress of Australia's First Peoples is welcomed. However, it does NOT, of itself, constitute, and nor should it substitute, for broader community participation. Participation in decision-making is inherently linked to self-determination. And governments must always return to affected Indigenous communities to conduct genuine consultations, in accordance with the principles of free, prior and informed consent.

Let me provide more context on language protection. Languages are critically endangered in Australia, dying rapidly. Before colonisation, we had 250 distinct languages. Today, we have 100, most in varying stages of extinction. There are only 18 Indigenous languages currently spoken by all people in all age groups. Without intervention, Indigenous language usage will cease in 10 to 30 years.

In August 2009, the Australian Government released the National Approach to Preserving and Promoting Indigenous languages. This reflects the will to take remedial action. But it is not accompanied by an increase in funding, and will do little to prevent serious language decline. Bilingual education is one of the best strategies for language stabilisation.  Currently 9 schools out of 9632 in Australia have Indigenous bilingual education. Most are in the Northern Territory, and are rolling back that bilingual education.

The Commission regularly notes the special place of our nation First Peoples, and has identified reconciliation as a critical platform for a healthy and robust multiculturalism. We note the lack of a national multicultural policy since 1996. Without policy leadership, a targeted and resourced anti-racism strategy, racial discrimination will continue.

The idea of migration being a positive, essential and inevitable part of Australian life is challenged by many. It is framed as a problem. This is currently demonstrated through public discourse about asylum seekers, international students, and population growth.

The Commission strongly recommends the development of multicultural policy, based on extensive community consultation, and a broad definition of multicultural communityí to include people from refugee backgrounds, newly arrived migrants, international students, temporary and seasonal migrant workers, and established ethnic communities.

I turn now to the communities just listed. Unsurprisingly, there are considerable gaps in the collection of data around issues affecting migrant and culturally diverse communities.  For example, there is no national data on the prevalence of migrants as victims of crime.

Over the past eighteen months, the Commission has done work on the safety and well being of international students. They tell us that, while student safety has received the most attention, it is a symptom of other issues, including racism and discrimination, lack of accessible and affordable accommodation, poor employment conditions, transport costs, lack of student support services, variable quality of education, and social isolation and exclusion. Some international students, particularly from Non-English Speaking Backgrounds, routinely experience:

  • personal, social and cultural loneliness and isolation
  • having an outsider status
  • workplace exploitation
  • discrimination in the private rental market
  • violence and street abuse (in particular racist verbal abuse)

These experiences reinforce the need for federal law to criminalise race hate.

From 2007 to 2010, we conducted national community consultations for African Australian communities, the newest migrant group. Key issues included:

  • the need for an improved understanding of child protection and family law in Australia 
  • the over-policing of young men
  • pervasive employment discrimination

During the last four years, I have made around 20 visits to Australian Immigration Detention Centres. I have seen isolation, despair and deterioration of mental health in those who have made the heart-breaking decision to leave their own countries. Progress has occurred, but new detention values are policy not law, people are mandatorily detained in isolated remote locations, people arriving by boat have reduced rights, and children and families are still detained- though security is less.

Our report recommends compliance with CERD, Refugee Convention, and accession to OPCAT.

Chair, I end where I began. The Australian Human Rights Commission-
Welcomes progress on CERD implementation:

  • calls for constitutional recognition of the first Australians
  • urges the complete restoration of race discrimination law, and its constitutional protection
  • seeks resourcing of language protection
  • calls for a multi-cultural policy, and an anti-racism strategy
  • urges equality for marginalised communities
  • calls for Federal law making race hate a criminal offense
  • seeks a domestic implementation mechanism for CERD.

Thank you, Chair. We value this opportunity for engagement.

The Commission’s submission is available at: