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Australia: Government must overturn law which discriminates against Aboriginal people

Slamming decades of failure by Australian governments to address the dire living conditions and discrimination faced by many of the country’s Indigenous peoples, Amnesty International’s Secretary General Irene Khan warned the Rudd government not to squander its opportunity to right historic wrongs, and in particular to end the new discrimination suffered by Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory.

Visiting the impoverished Utopia region of the Northern Territory of Australia earlier this week, Irene Khan criticised the ongoing subjection of 45,000 Aboriginal people to state-sponsored racially discriminatory measures – including land confiscation and interference with income payments.

These measures have been implemented as part of the 2007 ‘Northern Territory Emergency Response’ (NTER) which followed the publication of a report on high levels of violence and abuse in some Aboriginal communities. Amnesty and others are highly critical however of the way the NTER subjects all Aboriginal people living in the Northern Territory to its harsh measures – including ‘compulsory income management’ which sees people forced to receive half their welfare payments, including pensions and income support, in the form of a ‘BasicsCard’ virtual payment which can only be spent on certain goods in certain shops, leading to serious problems for many. The Australian government had to suspend the racial Discrimination Act in order to implement the NTER.

Irene Khan said:

“The blunt force of the Intervention’s heavy handed ‘one size fits all’ approach cannot deliver the desired results.

“Indigenous people in remote Aboriginal communities deserve the same respect, safety and protection as does any Australian – but this will not be achieved in a sustained manner under the Emergency Response which is stigmatising and disempowering an already marginalised people and which is in violation of Australia’s international obligations.”

Welcoming the commitment she had received from Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin that the Government would introduce legislation to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act in the Northern Territory, Irene Khan called on the Government to ensure that it does so in line with Australia’s international obligations not to discriminate against Indigenous peoples.

Irene Khan continued:

“For a country which by human development standards is the third most developed in the world and one which has emerged from the global financial crisis comparatively unscathed, such a level of poverty is inexcusable, unexpected and unacceptable.

“In the heart of this first world I found scenes more reminiscent of the third world. That Indigenous peoples experience human rights violations on a continent of such privilege is not merely disheartening, it is morally outrageous.”

Irene Khan called for a new approach, grounded in a genuine respect for traditional culture and with human rights principles at its core, to tackle the complex problem of the entrenched poverty and discrimination faced by Indigenous peoples in Australia.

Irene Khan said:

“There is a real risk of an enormous opportunity for change being squandered. The government’s apology to the Stolen Generations and other Indigenous Australians along with its support for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a welcome shift from the past. This Government is making a serious financial and political investment but to achieve the returns it wants, it must replace its blunt and blanket policy approaches.”


In 2007, the Australian Government launched an ‘intervention’ into Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. To enact the Northern Territory Emergency Response legislation and to implement the intervention, the Government suspended the Racial Discrimination Act and Northern Territory anti-discrimination legislation. Two years into a new government, more than 45,000 Aboriginal people are still subject to racially discriminatory measures, including the compulsory and blanket quarantining of social security payments in 73 Northern Territory communities.

Irene Khan is visiting Australia from 15 to 20 November 2009, where she will be launching her book, ‘The Unheard Truth: Poverty and Human Rights’, which includes discussion of discrimination against Indigenous peoples.

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