Human Rights

Australia has been found guilty by a United Nations body of practising racial discrimination against its own citizens.

Australia has agreed to be bound by all major international human rights Conventions and has taken a high profile on promoting human rights internationally – especially in opposing apartheid in South Africa. But both national and international bodies are now saying that Australia is itself guilty of fundamental human rights breaches in its treatment of its indigenous citizens.

In March 2009, the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) expressed serious concern that the Australian Government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) to enact the Northern Territory Emergency Response (intervention) laws. In responding to the urgent complaint against the intervention brought by Indigenous leaders, the committee urged the Australian Government to report on the progress it has made to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act and build a new relationship with Aboriginal Australia.

In April 2009, the United Nations Human Rights Committee reported that Australia had breached a number of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It drew attention to the failure to establish a national Indigenous representative body, the insufficient consultation with Indigenous people in decisions affecting their rights, failure to grant reparations to the Stolen Generations and the discriminatory nature of the Northern Territory intervention. On the intervention measures, the committee stated that they were “inconsistent with the State party’s obligations under the Covenant”. The Committee was “particularly concerned at the negative impact” of the “measures on the enjoyment of the rights of Indigenous peoples and at the fact that they suspend the operation of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and were adopted without adequate consultation with the Indigenous peoples”.

On 1-2 March 2005, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination met with the Australian Government in Geneva to assess the Government’s performance of obligations under the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

In its concluding comments released on 11 March 2005, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, raised serious concerns about a number of issues in Australia.

In particular, the Committee expressed concern about the abolishment of ATSIC; the practical barriers Indigenous peoples face in succeeding in claims for native title; the continuing over-representation of Indigenous peoples in prisons; and the extreme inequities between Indigenous peoples and others in the areas of employment, housing, health education and income. The UN Committee called on the Australian Government to work towards a meaningful reconciliation and to properly address the issues of the Stolen Generation.

In 1999, the CERD Committee placed Australia on its agenda of urgent business, mainly because of the Government’s 1998 amendments to the 1993 Native Title Act (see separate information sheet on Native Title).

On 18 March 1999 at its 54th session CERD brought down highly damaging findings against the Australian Government – its first report critical of a Western country. The Committee found that:

  • the 1998 Native Title amendments were racially discriminatory, because they put limitations on the rights of indigenous people which did not apply to other citizens
  • they did not comply with Australia’s international obligations
  • they upset the delicate balance of the 1993 act and created certainty for Federal and State governments and third parties [ie pastoralists and miners] at the expense of indigenous peoples.

On 19 August 1999 at its 55th session, after considering the Australian Government’s defence of their actions, CERD reaffirmed its March decision. The Committee expressed ‘serious concern’ that Australia was going backwards as regards indigenous land rights.