"Let me assure anybody who cares for the Aboriginal people of Australia that once we are moved from our place of origin, we will not only lose our identity, we will die a traumatised tragic end. We must stop this, and we must remain on our country. It’s not [simply] attachment to the land, it’s survival of a cultural practice that is still alive in spite of what has been thrown at it." A woman from the Northern Territory town of Elliot
The Western Australian government’s disgraceful plans to close between 100 and 150 remote Indigenous communities - without even discussing the matter with Indigenous people - follows years of failing to invest properly in these communities.
In the next days, I will focus on a report written by Amnesty International on remote communities in the Northern Territory of Australia. I include parts of the summary which you can find in full here.
As you will see, Australian governments’ ‘policy initiatives fall below international human rights standards.’
‘For over three years we partnered with the Alyawarr and Anmatyerr communities of Utopia homelands to develop our report. "'The land holds us:' Aboriginal Peoples' right to traditional homelands in the Northern Territory."
Our report highlights the way specific policies on homelands in the Northern Territory undermine the rights of Aboriginal communities, including:
- All Indigenous peoples have the fundamental human right to their traditional lands. For Aboriginal Peoples of Australia, this connection to traditional lands or ‘country' is of central importance to Aboriginal identity and culture.
- This report documents the efforts of the Alyawarr and Anmatyerr Peoples of the Utopia homelands in Central Australia to live a healthy life on their homelands, despite a series of legislative and policy changes made at a national, state, territory and local level over the last decade that have been detrimental to the rights of Aboriginal Peoples to live on their ancestral lands.
- These policy initiatives fall below international human rights standards, in particular the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Central to the declaration are the rights of Indigenous peoples to own, live on and develop their lands; to consultation and free, prior and informed consent; and to culture. The themes of land, culture, and informed consent are the subject of this report.
Our recommendations (see below - DC) focus on the need for governments at both national and territory level to show political and financial support for homelands…
Rights to adequate housing under International law
In February 2009, Prime Minister Julia Gillard made a statement of support of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and spoke of her government's efforts to "overcome decades of under-investment in services and infrastructure" in Aboriginal communities.
Our research shows that these efforts are not being directed at homelands - which consists of approximately 500 communities, and are home to one third of the Northern Territory's Aboriginal population.
The Australian Government has transferred the responsibility for homelands to the Northern Territory Government, whose own policy clearly states no new homes and new homelands in the Northern Territory. Instead, the governments are focusing attention on just 21 'hub' towns.
Australia's obligations to homeland communities
The declaration outlines the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the rights to:
- own, use and control their own lands (Article 26)
- control and develop their culture (Article 31)
- participate in decisions that affect them.
It also states that:
- Governments shall consult with Indigenous Peoples in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent before adopting laws and policies that may affect them (Article 19)…
- Indigenous Peoples have the right to choose their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free, prior and informed consent (Articles 26, 19, 8).
- The Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, to which Australia is a signatory, also clearly articulates the rights of effective participation and informed consent as fundamental aspects of non-discrimination.
Australia is also party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Article 11 of ICESCR recognises the right of all people to adequate housing and commits governments to take appropriate steps to ensure the realisation of that right.
Australia has an obligation under ICESCR to ensure that minimum essential standards are met in the provision of basic housing for all Australians. The minimum standards are:
- Availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure, including access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
- Accessibility for disadvantaged groups, including the elderly, children, the physically disabled and the terminally ill.
For Aboriginal people, where land is an integral part of their cultural identity, the relationship between the right to land and the right to adequate housing is even more essential...
The Commonwealth Government has transferred the responsibility for homelands to the Northern Territory Government, whose own policy clearly states no new home and new homelands in the Northern Territory. Instead the Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments are focusing attention on 21 Territory Growth Towns.
In this report, Amnesty International has argued that Aboriginal Peoples have the right to live on their traditional homelands without being effectively denied access to services like public housing and related infrastructure.
Both the Commonwealth and the Northern Territory governments need to address this problem with the full and equal participation of those directly affected - the Aboriginal Peoples occupying the homelands of the Northern Territory. As Rosalie Kunoth-Monks says:
“What we need and demand is our dignity and rightful situation in Australia. We are Australians. We are not reluctant to take up the challenge and own a journey which might take us closer to closing the gap which Prime Minister Rudd [sic] talks about. But he does not have to destroy the spirit or the ethos of who we are. We want that to continue into generations after generations. And Australia is in the unique position of safeguarding and assisting us to continue into the next century.”
For Australia to uphold its obligation to housing rights, we recommend the following:
- The Australian Commonwealth and North Territory governments recognise and fulfil the rights of Aboriginal Peoples to their traditional lands.
- The Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments apply the Closing the Gap policies to all Aboriginal Peoples in the Northern Territory, not only to those living in Territory Growth Towns.
- Closing the Gap funding is equitably distributed to include homelands. Criteria for funding must reflect the importance of homelands to Aboriginal Peoples and the significant backlog in housing as a result of historical underinvestment.
- The Commonwealth Government must ensure that all housing on homelands meets the standards for adequate housing under international law, and that effective, equitable and non-discriminatory processes are in place to ensure the rights of Aboriginal Peoples to their traditional lands and the rights to adequate housing.
- The Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments engage with homelands communities to secure their free, prior and informed consent on all housing policy and plans for homelands given the significance of these policies for homeland communities.
- The Commonwealth and Northern Territory governments to take into account the above recommendations when re-negotiating the 2007 Memorandum of Understanding on Indigenous Housing, Accommodation and Related Services.