The Guardian May 10, 2000


Government undermines Indigenous self-determination

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) has raised 
serious concerns over the Howard Government's change in course on 
Indigenous self-determination. The Minister for Aboriginal and Torres 
Strait Islander Affairs, John Herron, now advocates a policy of "self 
empowerment". It differs, he says, from self-determination in that "it is a 
means to an end ... rather than an end in itself".

The new policy was announced by Herron without any consultation with the 
elected representatives of Indigenous peoples and, says ATSIC, it does not 
have the support of Indigenous peoples.

The ATSIC Act provides a structure to enable Indigenous communities, 
through their elected representatives, to make decisions about programs and 
policies for their social, economic and cultural advancement at both 
national and regional level.

Since 1972 the policy of self-determination for Indigenous peoples has had 
widespread acceptance in Australia. This policy followed earlier policies 
of Extermination, Protection and Assimilation.

In 1990 the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Aboriginal 
Affairs defined self-determination as:

Aboriginal control over the decision-making process as well as control over 
the ultimate decision about a wide range of matters including political 
status, and economic, social and cultural development. It means Aboriginal 
people having the resources and the capacity to control the future of their 
own communities within the legal structure common to all Australians.

In 1991 the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended 
that:

Governments negotiate with appropriate Aboriginal organisations and 
communities to determine guidelines as to the procedures and processes 
which should be followed to ensure that the self-determination principle is 
applied in the design and implementation of any policy or program or the 
substantial modification of any policy or program which will substantially 
affect Aboriginal people.

The recommendation was accepted by the Commonwealth and all State and 
Territory Governments.

In late July 1998 it was reported that Cabinet had decided to downgrade 
Australian support for the language of "self-determination" in the United 
Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to that of 
"self management".

This decision was taken without any consultation with indigenous peoples.

ATSIC is strongly opposed to this policy change because it denies 
Indigenous peoples a fundamental right which is enjoyed by all other 
peoples and remains committed to the principles of the UN Draft 
Declaration.

Self-determination is recognised in International Law in Articles 1 of the 
International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights and the International 
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Australia is a signatory 
to both.

ATSIC's social justice package submission of 1995 states in part:

There is no right more fundamental for Indigenous people than that of self-
determination. It is central to addressing the general disadvantage and 
oppressed condition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It 
underlies the establishment, the functions and the operations of of ATSIC 
and the Regional Councils   ... the right to self-determination underpins a 
variety of broader goals and objectives, including:

* an entitlement to land and compensation for dispossession;
* recognition of customary law;
* the reassertion and development of community self-governance;
* the negotiation of flexible forms of self-government;
* the negotiation of involvement in Commonwealth, State/Territory and local 
Government policy, planning and service delivery;
* the development of an Indigenous economic base;
* sharing in the mineral and other resources of the land;
* collective rights in relation to the protection of sites and cultural 
property;
* the authority to negotiate a treaty or document of reconciliation.

In his first annual report, the former Aboriginal and Torres Strait 
Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Dodson, stated:

"The crucial importance of self-determination to Aboriginal and Torres 
Strait Islander peoples is little appreciated by non-Indigenous 
Australians.

"Correctly understood, every issue concerning the historical and present 
status, entitlements, treatment and aspirations of Aboriginal and Torres 
Strait Islander peoples is implicated in the concept of self-determination.

"The reason for this lies in the fact that self-determination is a process. 
The right of self-determination is a right to make decisions. These 
decisions affect the enjoyment and exercise of the full range of freedoms 
and human rights of Indigenous peoples."

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