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Oxfam explores another Australia

By Ernst Ligteringen - posted Tuesday, 31 October 2000

The recent Sydney Olympic Games showcased a talented, vibrant and confident Australia to the world. Much of the talent displayed in Sydney was that of indigenous Australians whose ceremony and dance captivated the opening ceremony audience and whose many superb athletic achievements brought the nation to a standstill.

Yet the Games also highlighted growing political tensions over Indigenous issues in Australia, most markedly at the closing ceremony. A TV audience of billions saw white rock band Midnight Oil take the stage in clothing emblazoned with the word "sorry" – a criticism of the Australian government’s refusal to formally apologise to Indigenous people for past injustices. Indigenous Australian band Yothu Yindi followed with "Treaty" – an Indigenous anthem calling for a formal treaty between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Are these complaints warranted? A recent investigation by Oxfam International, a global alliance of eleven aid agencies including Community Aid Abroad, suggests that they are. The report compares Indigenous rights in Australia with others in the Asia-Pacific region. Oxfam International's experience is that there are many parallels in the issues confronting Indigenous peoples, including poverty, lack of political power, and the sacrifice of their law, culture, rights and land rights to the economic interests of the dominant culture. More surprisingly, the investigation found that in some respects, Indigenous rights in Australia – a wealthy, developed nation – lag behind those in many of developing countries where Oxfam works.


Until the early 1990s, Australia was a strong leader in international human rights. Various UN committees since that time have criticised Australia's human rights record around issues including weakening of its Indigenous land rights legislation and mandatory sentencing of young offenders, which was found to have an unacceptable impact on young Indigenous Australians.

Disturbingly, Australia has reacted by withdrawing cooperation with the UN: the Federal Government recently proposed a "complete overhaul" of UN human rights treaty bodies. The investigators believe that this position threatens not only the prospects for achieving consensus within Australia, but also the work of the UN human rights committees. If a country with a respected human rights record like Australia's chooses to thumb its nose at the UN, this undermines its work within countries with worse reputations.

Indigenous Australians continue to lag behind the rest of the country in all significant social indicators, including employment, housing, health and life expectancy. They are overwhelmingly excluded from mainstream Australian economic life, in contrast with Indigenous minorities in many developing countries, who are in many cases more likely to take part in the economic systems – agriculture, fishing, forestry – of those countries.

There are significant gaps in the legal protection of Indigenous rights within Australia. Unlike Canada, the US and New Zealand, Australia has never had any treaty or formal agreement with its Indigenous population. Nor is there an Australian Bill of Rights. The investigators found no other constitution in the world that permits racial discrimination against a race of people, although other countries, including Malaysia and Bangladesh, provide for positive discrimination for Indigenous groups.

Australian institutions do exist that could make real inroads on Indigenous rights, given goodwill on the part of Australian Commonwealth and State Governments. The Oxfam International report makes 20 recommendations. At their core is the notion that social and economic advancement for Indigenous Australians must be built on the recognition of rights which provide certainty. Certainty that they can make a sustainable living, whether from employment or from the natural resources of their land. Certainty that they can live free of racism, and practice their cultures and speak their languages freely. Certainty that they will have access to appropriate education and health services. Certainty that they have a voice and a real say in their own affairs.

These certainties are what Oxfam International believes that rights provide. That a wealthy country like Australia so comprehensively denies those rights to Indigenous Australians demonstrates the importance of international human rights standards. No nation, developed or otherwise, should be exempt.

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Oxfam International is one of the world’s leading non government aid and development networks with 11 affiliates in Europe, North America, Asia and the Pacific operating development projects in more than 120 countries around the world. Oxfam International takes a rights based approach to its work on poverty, injustice and suffering.

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About the Author

Ernst Ligteringen was the Executive Director of Oxfam International from 1995-2001.

Related Links
Oxfam International Home page
The Rights of Indigenous Australians Oxfam International Investigation Mission
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