UN special rapporteur, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, highlighted the growing Indigenous incarceration rate in Australia as an area of serious concern.
She told Guardian Australia that child protection policies, which saw Indigenous children removed from their families at almost 10 times the rate of non-Indigenous children, contributed to the numbers in detention.
Tauli-Corpuz is the second Indigenous special rapporteur to conduct an official visit since Australia signed the declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples in 2008. She said she found it “disturbing” that so few of the recommendations made by her predecessor in 2009 had been implemented, and that the bulk of recommendations made by both the 1991 royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody and the 1996 Bringing Them Home report, among other recommendations, had also not been enacted.
It’s no wonder, she said, that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are frustrated. “What they really feel is so, so, helpless,” she said. “They feel so frustrated …There are all these different recommendations for royal commission reports, etc, and they are looking up to the implementation of these recommendations, but nothing is happening …And in everything they have to push, they have to fight for it, nothing ever comes to them. They have to fight for every little bit of their rights.”
Her visit coincided, rather awkwardly, with the parliamentary vote on abolishing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, in which the Turnbull government sought to remove protections against insulting, harassing or humiliating people on the grounds of their race. The proposed change was stopped in the Senate, but Tauli-Corpuz said the highly publicised debate, which in another awkward piece of timing began on Harmony Day, sent a message to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people about their position and value in Australian society.
“I think there are many positive things happening within Indigenous communities with them taking up the cudgels and dealing with the issues themselves,” she said. “But the way that they are being regarded is like they are wards of the state: they don’t have the agency themselves to address these issues … [and] the services that they need are not really shaped in a manner which is structurally competent.” It’s a model used by governments across the world, she said, to curtail the rights of Indigenous peoples while still outwardly appearing to comply with international law. “The thing that governments do generally is to really bureaucratise the system … they put in place very complex bureaucratic processes that Indigenous peoples will not be able to hurdle,” she said.
Tauli-Corpuz particularly criticised the Indigenous advancement strategy, introduced by the Abbott government in 2014, which she said undermined the right to self-determination by promoting a shift towards service delivery in Indigenous communities by mainstream, centralised services.
She called for the government to reinstate all funding cut under the strategy and accused it of abandoning its public commitment to support the self-determination of Indigenous peoples.
She also criticised the federal government’s decision not to fund political advocacy work traditionally undertaken by organisations such as Aboriginal legal services. “How will these discriminatory or racist policies be rectified if the people who are directly affected are not even provided support to do that? It costs a lot of money to do advocacy work, to get people to analyse the law, to get people to go and meet with the members of parliament or the members of government. It requires a lot of resources and by not giving the resources you are basically capping the ability of organisations to influence the reforms that are very much needed.”
Other draft recommendations included immediately reinstating funding for Aboriginal legal services, increasing funding to Aboriginal family violence services, establishing national strategies for reducing the overrepresentation of Aboriginal children in both the justice system and out of home care, developing a national charter of human rights, and urging the government to act on the recommendations of the joint parliamentary committee on human rights.