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‘We are yet to see any meaningful change’

Australia’s human rights record has been “woeful rather than exemplary”, National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples co-chair Jackie Huggins has told a United Nations forum.

Ms Huggins told the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York that Australia had reached a crisis point in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs.

She said statements by Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade about Australia’s proud human rights record and support for Indigenous people was “hypocritical in the extreme”.

Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while hoping for change, were “sceptical, disillusioned after many years of paternalism, hollow rhetoric and empty promises”, Ms Huggins said.

More than 1000 First Nations people from across the world were in New York for the annual forum in late April.

In her speech, Ms Huggins pointed to the latest Closing the Gap report that showed only three of seven targets were on track: imprisonment rates for Indigenous people, disability figures and the high rates of children being removed from homes.

Ms Huggins said the Australian Government — which this year took up a seat on the UN Human Rights Council — had also continually watered down Indigenous peoples’ rights to land since they were established in 1992.

She said land rights were now inaccessible for most First Peoples in Australia.

“We have been pressing the government to work with us, rather than developing ineffective, short-term policy options that are paternalistic and assimilationist in nature,” Ms Huggins said.

“To this end, we established a coalition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service organisations, which have presented the government with our views of what needs to happen, encapsulated in the Redfern Statement. Our plea is ‘We have the solutions’.

National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, as the peak representative body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, leads this coalition.

“While the government has shown interest, we are yet to see any meaningful change in policies and approach.

“Recently, after commissioning extensive consultations with First Peoples across the nation on constitutional reform, the government flatly rejected our recommendations in The Uluru Statement from The Heart.”

‘My people are crying out for justice’

Independent Northern Territory MP Yingiya Mark Guyula, a Yolngu leader from Arnhem Land, asked the UN to intervene on the behalf of Aboriginal people.

He told the UN Yolngu people had very little control or autonomy and their collective rights were being destroyed by government licensing regimes, the inability to contest government land council decisions and policies that were forcing Yolngu people into hub towns.

“My people are crying out for justice and we are not being heard,” Mr Guyula said.

“I now want the UN to intervene on our behalf.”

Mr Guyula asked the forum to petition the Australian Government to recognise Yolngu sovereignty and to enter into treaty negotiations with Indigenous nations.

Meanwhile other speakers told the forum that protecting the land and resource rights of Indigenous peoples would provide security and also help global fights against climate change and biodiversity loss.

Global inaction

Forum chairperson Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine, a medical doctor from Timbuktu, Mali, said few countries had acted to defend the collective rights of Indigenous peoples.

“Law enforcement is inadequate or non-existent, and other elements of legislation goes against these rights,” she said.

“Measures necessary to give meaning to land rights, such as tenure delimitation and allocating title deeds, are often not implemented.”

Ms Aboubakrine said people who defended Indigenous rights were targeted.

General Assembly President Miroslav Lajčák said Indigenous people made up five percent of the world’s population, but 15 percent of its poorest people.

The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was set up in 2000 to provide advice and recommendations on Indigenous issues to the UN’s Economic and Social Council.


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