Nation’s racism and Indigenous incarceration shock UN

A United Nations official says she is “deeply disturbed” by the prevalence of racism against the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples she encountered during a 15-day fact-finding mission to Australia.

The Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People Victoria Tauli-Corpuz this week delivered a harsh interim report card on Australia’s state of affairs.

She said Australia had “astounding” rates of imprisonment for Indigenous people, was failing to respect the right to self-determination of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, had slashed funding to vital Indigenous programs and advocacy groups, and needed to come up with a national strategy to tackle the over-representation of Indigenous children in out-of-home-care.

“As I have travelled across the country, I have found the prevalence of racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples deeply disturbing,” Ms Tauli-Corpuz said.

“This manifests itself in different ways, ranging from public stereotyped portrayals of them as violent criminals, welfare profiteers and poor parents and to discrimination in the administration of justice.

“Aboriginal doctors and patients told me about experiencing racism within the medical sector.

“Institutional racism has been identified in the Government’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan and its implementation plan as a significant barrier in the delivery of health care.

“There are also more subtle elements of racism resulting from the failure to recognise the legacy of two centuries of systemic marginalisation.”

She said Australia’s mainstream education system contained inadequate components on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and the impact of colonisation.

“The non-recognition of the socio-economic exclusion and the inter-generational trauma of Indigenous peoples sadly continues to undermine reconciliation efforts.”

During her time in Australia, Ms Tauli-Corpuz visited Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and New South Wales.

She met members of Indigenous communities, visited detention centres and jails, met with government officials and the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, the Australian Human Rights Commission and other groups.

Ms Tauli-Corpuz will present a final report on her findings to the UN Human Rights Council in September.

But she said this week Australia needed to reduce the rates at which Indigenous people were imprisoned and step up the fight against racism.

“It is alarming that while the country has adopted numerous policies to address the socio-economic disadvantage of Aboriginal peoples and those from the Torres Strait Islands, it has failed to respect their rights to self-determination and to full and effective participation in society,” Ms Tauli-Corpuz said.

“Government policies have failed to deliver on targets in the areas of health, education and employment and have led to a growing number of people being jailed, and have resulted in an increasing number of children being removed from their homes in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

“High rates of incarceration were described to me as a tsunami affecting Indigenous peoples.

“It is a major human rights concern – the figures are simply astounding.

“While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up only three percent of the total population, they constitute 27 percent of the prison population, and much more in some prisons.”

Ms Tauli-Corpuz said the incarceration of Indigenous youth in particular was alarming, saying children should only ever be detained as a last resort.

“I visited Cleveland Youth Detention Centre in Townsville, Queensland, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children constitute 95 percent of the children detained,” she said.

“Many have been going from out-of-home care into detention.”

Ms Tauli-Corpuz noted Aboriginal children were seven times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in contact with the child protection system or to be subject to abuse or neglect.

Ms Tauli-Corpuz said the Federal Government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy had undermined the key role played by Aboriginal and Torres Strait organisations in providing services for their communities.

The IAS saw $534 million cut from Indigenous programs and required competitive bids for organisations providing services to Indigenous communities.

“Around 55 percent of the tenders were awarded to non-Indigenous organisations, which shifted implementation to mainstream organisations that are not run by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders nor based in their communities,” she said.

“Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations were forced to close or drastically downsize and reduce the basic services they were providing to their community in areas of health, housing and legal services.”

“Non-Indigenous organisations that fly in, fly out of communities have executed projects in culturally inappropriate ways and undermined capacity-building in local Indigenous-led organisations.”

She said the IAS ran contrary to the principles of self-determination and that she had been told the current policy climate had blocked the voice of Indigenous organisations.

“I am deeply troubled by information indicating that funding cuts have specifically targeted organisations that undertake advocacy and legal services and that specific provisions have been inserted in funding agreements to impede advocacy work and stifle their freedom of expression,” she said.

Ms Tauli-Corpuz said the Australian Government could achieve more by consulting and working closely with peak Indigenous organisations such as the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, which it had defunded.

By Wendy Caccetta

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