• Indigenous people in Australia are still much worse of in terms of health and life expectancy than Non-Indigenous peoples. File image. (AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL)Source: AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL
This Monday, 9 November, Australia will be reviewed by the other 192 member states of the United Nations in its second Universal Periodic Review (UPR) –a UN mechanism which assesses each nation’s human rights record every four years.
Tammy Solonec

Amnesty International
6 Nov 2015 - 1:57 PM  UPDATED 6 Nov 2015 - 4:44 PM

The UPR mechanism, sits under the umbrella of the UN Human Rights Council, covering rights and freedoms including about racial discrimination; torture; civil and political rights; economic; cultural and social rights; and the rights of women, people with disabilities and children.

In Australia’s first UPR in 2011, numerous recommendations were made by UN member states about Australia’s treatment of Indigenous Peoples, and disappointingly, many of those recommendations were either not accepted by the Australian Government or too slow a progress has been made in the last four years.

One example is the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which Australia committed to ratify at the last UPR. If ratified this protocol would allow UN investigators to inspect all places of detention in Australia to ensure they comply with international standards.

This would include refugee centres, and would extend to police lockups, where too many of our people have died. Since the Abbott Government was elected in 2013, almost nothing has been done to meet this commitment.

Similarly, the government accepted a number of recommendations relating to law and justice. This included:

  • providing appropriate mechanisms to investigate police;
  • cultural and human rights training for police;
  • independent investigations of deaths in custody including implementation of coronial findings;
  • increasing the provision of Indigenous legal aid and translation services;
  • implementing measures to address Indigenous overrepresentation in the justice system; and
  • examining possibilities to increase the use of non-custodial measures.

Once again however, in the four years since the review, Australia’s progress has been disappointing, with a mix and match of programs in states and territories and little direction or oversight by the federal government.

While the government report says it believes that by focussing on the long-term drivers of violence, in addition to early intervention and recidivism programs they will reduce Indigenous incarceration, the report does not outline how this ‘belief’ will translate into action.

Sadly, in the time since the first UPR, the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in Australian prisons and juvenile detention centres has continued to rise.

Constitutional recognition

The area of reform that the government most points to for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is constitutional reform.

As we know, this is an area of much debate and controversy amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. We also know that the process has stalled on several occasions. The government report indicates that this ‘might’ happen on 27 May 2017, but as too many of us know this is a changing beast, and one that will do little to address the issues of economic, cultural and social rights of Indigenous people.

National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples funding

Another concerning part of the review is the government’s reference to the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples, which the current government decided to not fund about a week before Christmas in 2013. There is no mention of this in the government’s report, instead it boasts that the government did originally fund the organisation.

Legal assistance funding

Similarly, the government report boasted that they will invest $358 million over five years in legal assistance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, but neglected to mention that for a period the funding of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and Family Violence Prevention Legal Services had been under threat, and that no increases in funding had been made, as was outlined in the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services submission.

In fact, since the last review a staggering $603 million in funding cuts has occurred across the Indigenous sector, including through the overhaul of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, creating much uncertainty.

Violence against women

Another significant area was regarding violence in Indigenous communities and in particular against women.

Recommendations accepted by the government included promises to:

  • strengthen efforts to combat family violence against women and children, particularly in Indigenous communities;
  • adopt legislation to prevent and combat violence against women and girls (and to prosecute and punish perpetrators);
  • speed up the process for the adoption of the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their children; and
  • ensure all victims of violence have access to counselling and assistance with recovery.

There were also a series of recommendations about the rights of children including that Australia should develop a national plan for children and provide stronger legislative protections and enforcement of the rights contained within the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

While the government report boasts the appointment of the National Children’s Commissioner Megan Mitchell in March 2013, the NGO report argues that her office has not been equipped with adequate resources for effective monitoring as recommended.

Finally, there were recommendations accepted by the government to:

  • step up efforts for people in remote communities to access economic and cultural rights like housing, health and education;
  • better recognise and protect Aboriginal culture and heritage; and
  • promote the inclusion of Indigenous people in decisions that affect them.

In this regard, the government has clearly gone backwards, especially in my home state of Western Australia, where we saw the forced eviction and then demolition of the remote Indigenous community of Oombulgurri, the threat of closing up to 150 more communities and severe erosion of the protection of cultural heritage and sacred sites.

I will be in Geneva to witness Australia’s review at the UPR on Monday and will be tweeting. You can follow me on Tammy@AmnestyOz for updates as we feed back to our mob at home about the progress of Australia at this important meeting.