26 June 2007

A human rights based approach is vital to address the challenges in Indigenous communities

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) has welcomed the Australian Government’s announcements to act to protect the rights of Indigenous women and children in the Northern Territory and urges it to adopt an approach that is consistent with Australia’s international human rights obligations.

The complex issues being tackled and the proposed measures to be taken to overcome them raise a host of fundamental human rights principles. It is of the utmost importance to Australia’s international reputation, and for community respect for our system of government, that solutions to all aspects of these matters respect the human rights and freedoms of everyone involved.

Every Australian woman, man and child has the right to live free from violence in a safe and supportive home and community. These rights are clearly spelt out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which Australia is a party. While these Conventions require government action to protect women and children against immediate harm, they also require government to address the broader social factors (such as health, education and housing) and disadvantage experienced within Indigenous communities.

The design and implementation of measures to address violence and child abuse should also respect the human rights principles embodied in the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) (the RDA), which gives effect to Australia’s international obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD). The RDA protects all Australians against discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin. Successive Australian governments for more than 30 years have proudly endorsed the objects of the RDA, and Australia has been a strong advocate for its principles on the international stage.

HREOC considers that the situation the government is confronting can and should be addressed consistently with the RDA. The RDA provides that its provisions are not contravened by special measures taken to ensure the enjoyment or exercise of the human rights of particular racial groups or individuals belonging to them. Special measures must be reasonable and proportionate to the risk of harm being addressed. These provisions give an avenue for laws to protect Indigenous women and children who are at risk.

For more than a decade HREOC has supported the introduction of alcohol restrictions in some Indigenous communities as a ‘special measure’ on the basis that social benefits are likely to result in reduced violence and abuse and improved public safety. However in giving this support, HREOC has indicated that the restrictions should be part of a broad range of measures to address the causes of alcoholism, rehabilitation and underlying social disadvantage.

Many Indigenous communities are crying out for support services to assist them in addressing the social conditions in their communities. HREOC has been advocating for some time that a proactive approach needs to be taken by governments to address Indigenous disadvantage. Successive Social Justice Reports to Parliament have recommended a human rights based approach to development in Indigenous communities and stressed the necessity of ensuring the effective participation of Indigenous peoples in decision making processes. This approach is important to ensure that measures have more than a temporary impact on Indigenous people and their communities.

It is crucial that the government thoroughly analyses barriers that exist within Indigenous communities to the full enjoyment of basic human rights, such as the right to an adequate standard of living, and to the highest attainable standard of health, education and housing and identifies the steps necessary to address these.

HREOC will continue to work constructively with governments, Indigenous communities and the broader Australian community by putting forward suggestions to ensure that proposals in this area are consistent with Australia’s human rights obligations.

The Hon. John von Doussa, QC, President and Acting Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner and Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner

Graeme Innes AM, Human Rights Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Media contact: Louise McDermott (02) 9284 9851 or 0419 258 597