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UN Criticizes Australia for Revoking Anti-discrimination Law

The United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples issued a report last month condemning Australia’s Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) Act for further alienating the Australian indigenous population.

The NTER Act was enacted in response to a report detailing allegations of child sexual abuse in 43 communities in the Northern Territory, where approximately 30 percent of the population is of full or partial aboriginal descent. In June 2007 the Australian national government declared a “national emergency intervention” into the region. The subsequent NTER legislation passed swiftly and without consultation with indigenous leaders. The act suspended one of Australia’s primary anti-discrimination laws, the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act, and contained measures outlawing alcohol consumption and pornographic materials in 70 communities, including establishing requirements for the policing of publicly funded computers.

In an interview with the Australian radio program “The World Today,” James Anaya, the UN Special Rapporteur, stated that although other countries have adopted measures to assist indigenous communities, the Australian measures are extreme in the way they “impair basic freedoms” and “stigmatize or at least are perceived by indigenous people to be stigmatizing,” as well as the way they were enacted without any consultation or consent from aboriginal people themselves.

While pledging reforms to the NTER Act, the Australian government nevertheless has emphasized the positive effects of the legislation. Indeed, aboriginal communities in Australia suffer from endemic and well-documented social problems, including a 16-percent unemployment rate and a 27-percent school attendance rate for children in rural areas. The NTER Review Board, convened in 2008 to respond to criticisms about the legislation, found that the level of child abuse in the communities was sufficient to constitute a state of emergency.

The primary problem with the legislation, therefore, lies not in its purpose but its practice. In its report, the NTER Review Board emphasized that “in many communities there is a deep belief that the measures introduced by the Australian Government under the NTER were a collective imposition based on race.” While the Board found indigenous communities to be open to improving conditions for children in the Northern Territory, residents expressed disillusionment with the law enforcement system currently in place, citing examples of reported abuse that did not receive an effective response.

The Australian government has pledged to reinstate the Racial Discrimination Act; however, the Special Rapporteur has reacted skeptically, noting in his report that the government’s position “erroneously separates the question of impairment of rights from the racial discrimination involved.” Under the proposed reforms, the alcohol ban will be based on income, selecting for at risk “urban populations,” while the pornography ban will remain in place, with communities having the right to lift certain restrictions.

Australia retains pronounced physical and cultural distinctions between its indigenous and non-indigenous populations. One thing this issue makes clear is that the country is still struggling to address inequity without simply sharpening the divisions between the two communities.

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