Australia backs UN on indigenous rights


Julian Drape, The Sydney Morning Herald –

Date of publication: 
26 March 2009

The Rudd government will officially support a UN declaration on indigenous rights which the previous Howard government voted against in 2007.

Sixteen months after taking power, Labor will make good its election promise to endorse the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

But the Opposition says ratifying the UN Declaration would have far-reaching consequences if one racial group was allowed exemptions from Australian law.

Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin will make the statement of support at Parliament House in Canberra on Friday, April 3.

But she’s been quick to stress it won’t bestow additional rights on Aboriginal Australians.

“We want indigenous Australians to be partners in efforts to close the gap,” Ms Macklin said in a statement.

“For this to happen, we must recognise the unique place of indigenous people in Australia.

“This declaration is not legally binding and will not affect Australian laws.”

The minister said the change of position was an important symbolic step for building trust and “resetting” black and white relations in Australia.

The move follows the historic apology to the stolen generations in February last year.

The declaration sets out the rights of the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous people.

Earlier this month, human rights group Amnesty International slammed Labor for failing to support the declaration in its first year in office.

Aboriginal leaders have also criticised the delay.

Australia was one of just four countries to vote against the declaration when the UN’s General Assembly adopted it in September 2007, along with the United States, New Zealand and Canada.

The former Howard government opposed the declaration on the grounds it elevated customary law above national law.

Opposition legal affairs spokesman George Brandis said the UN document was deeply flawed, and supporting it would have unforeseen and far-reaching consequences for Australian law.

“Of most concern is that the declaration seeks to establish special sectoral exemptions for one section of the community to the exclusion of others,” he said.

“There is no room in Australia for different rights attaching to different citizens, differentiated only by race.”

Australian of the Year Mick Dodson told AAP he wouldn’t comment until he’d seen the actual statement of support.

Earlier this month the Aboriginal academic expressed concern that Labor’s endorsement could be watered down by “riders, qualifications or explanatory statements”.

Prof Dodson has previously stated the commonwealth’s intervention into remote communities in the Northern Territory breaches many of the declaration’s 46 articles.