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Jones, Craig --- "Human Rights Special - The International Decade of the World's Indigenous People" [2004] IndigLawB 69; (2004) 6(7) Indigenous Law Bulletin 4

The International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People

by Craig Jones

We have arrived at the close of the United Nations International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People[1] (1995-2004) (‘the International Decade’). The theme of the International Decade was ‘Indigenous people, partnership in action’. The end of any program begs evaluative questions. What were the goals of the International Decade and have they been achieved? Elsewhere in this edition, Professor Mick Dodson argues that the position of Indigenous peoples in Australia has, in fact, gone backwards over the last 10 years. He says that the rights of Indigenous Australians have also not improved in line with international standards. Given the winding back of native title from its initial highs, is there now a place for a debate about human rights in the politics of Indigenous affairs in Australia, particularly in the context of the close of the International Decade?

There has been much attention focused on human rights in recent times, particularly as they relate to discussions within the United Nations (‘UN’) system and the obligations of member states. However, it is important to remember that human rights derive from the mere fact of being human rather than from the operation of international and domestic law. Indeed, there is a danger in simply restricting our notion of human rights to the operation of the law. A parallel might be drawn between the initial recognition of native title in Australia as being sui generis (deriving from the fact of being Indigenous) to the concept now being defined and restricted by the operation of the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) (‘the Act’).

Human rights are founded on respect for the dignity and worth of each person; they are universal, they are inalienable and they are indivisible, interrelated and interdependent.[2] The human rights of Indigenous Australians derive from these basic concepts. However, the aim of this paper is not to provide a lesson in the development of human rights, rather the paper aims to provide an introduction to the discussion of the human rights of Indigenous Australians at the end of the International Decade.

Any discussion of human rights must include the issue of health – without this basic right, any discussion of human rights or land rights is meaningless. These indicators are discussed in the article by Dr Tamara Mackean and Dr Marshall Watson. The status of Indigenous peoples in Australia can be measured, to some extent, through statistics relating to health, housing, education and imprisonment. This conclusion should not be interpreted as support for the government’s policy of practical reconciliation, which even on its own measures is not working. Rather, it should be seen as the fundamental context in which the debate on Indigenous human rights occurs.

One of the proposed outcomes of the International Decade was the establishment of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (‘the Forum’) under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council (‘ECOSOC’), one of the six main organs of the UN. The establishment of the Forum[3] gives a greater voice to Indigenous peoples within the UN system, and perhaps in turn, greater leverage for their issues within the various states in which they are resident. The Forum will:

The goals of the International Decade, set by the UN General Assembly, were to be implemented by the international community. They included:

In the Australian context, the first goal of rights protection for Indigenous peoples is of particular concern. The winding back of native title rights through the Native Title (Amendment) Act 1998 (Cth) (‘the 1998 amendments’) and most recently the demise of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (‘ATSIC’) have created a dismal context for the development of Indigenous human rights in Australia. While Minister for Immigration, Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, Amanda Vanstone insists that the National Indigenous Council (‘NIC’), created shortly after the election, is neither a replacement for ATSIC nor a representative body for Indigenous peoples, the body is meant to provide the Australian government with expert advice ‘on policy, program and service-delivery issues affecting Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders’.[6] The issue here is not the credibility or the capability of the Indigenous people chosen for the NIC, but rather what is the most appropriate way for Government to develop policy on Indigenous peoples. Another way of framing that question is, ‘What is the best way for the Australian government to engage with Indigenous Australians so as to achieve their human and citizen rights to health, education, housing, clean water and air, and economic development?’

The pending Senate majority gives the coalition government enormous power in terms of law and policy-making. There are enormous and complex problems that need to be addressed in relation to Australia’s Indigenous peoples. The artificial separation of their cultural relationship to land from education, health and housing needs represents a fundamental threat to the indivisibility of their human rights. That threat to Indigenous rights diminishes Australia’s standing within the international community. The theme of the Decade perhaps offers some genuine direction to the policy-makers – that of partnership with Indigenous peoples. The partnership model should be based on the fundamental recognition of Indigenous human rights and, while such a step may seem politically unpopular, it is the courageous step that must be taken if the problems facing Indigenous Australians are to be resolved effectively and within a reasonable timeframe.

Associate Professor Craig Jones is currently employed at the Native Title Studies Centre, James Cook University. The work of the centre focuses on the practical implications of native title law and policy for Indigenous peoples and other Australians.[7]

[1] I note that within the UN system the word ‘people’ is used when discussing Indigenous peoples as the word ‘peoples’ implies a claim to sovereignty as in a nation of people, which is considered a threat to the sovereignty of states.

[2] United Nations, ‘Leaflet No 2: Indigenous Peoples, the UN and Human Rights’ <> at 11 November 2004. The indivisible nature of human rights could be usefully compared against the bundle of rights concept that has been developed for native title.

[3] See <> at 25 November 2004.

[4]United Nations, ‘Backgrounder’ <> at 11 November 2004, 1.

[5] Ibid, 2.

[6]The Hon Amanda Vanstone, ‘National Indigenous Council Appointed’, (press release 6 November 2004), <> at 11 November 2004.

[7] <> at 26 November 2004.

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