Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

RIGHTS-AUSTRALIA: Indigenous Groups Still Say No to Gov’t ‘Help’

Stephen de Tarczynski

MELBOURNE, Australia, Mar 25 2010 (IPS) - “We don’t want to have any part of this. We want to move out of it so we have a bit of freedom and be able to determine our own future,” says Richard Downs, an elder of the Alyawarra people of central Australia.

Downs, spokesman for the Alyawarra community at Ampilatwatja, located some 300 kilometres north-east of Alice Springs, is referring to measures that the federal government has been imposing supposedly to help indigenous communities in the Northern Territory.

In July 2009, Ampilatwatja members abandoned their settlement en masse in a double-barrelled protest to highlight the dilapidated conditions of their public housing and to avoid the measures the Australian government is pursuing with the aim of providing them with better basic services, ranging from education to child protection.

To counter what Downs calls the “total disempowerment” of life under this programme, the Alyawarra have taken matters into their own hands and set up a new camp several kilometres away from Ampilatwatja, where some 40 Alyawarra elders reside. An Alyawarra ‘protest house’ was opened in this new camp in February.

The government’s programme that the Alyawarra reject — called the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) or ‘the intervention’ — covers 73 prescribed areas, ostensibly to counter child abuse in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities.

Aboriginal communities make up some 2 percent of Australia’s 22 million people and many are among the poorest and most disadvantaged groups. Indigenous Australians comprise more than one-third of the Northern Territory’s population of more than 220,000.

The NTER was established three years ago following the release of the landmark ‘Little Children Are Sacred’ report, which found that the sexual abuse of Aboriginal children was “serious, widespread and often unreported.” Introduced by the conservative government of John Howard in June 2007 and continued under the current leadership of Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party, the intervention remains controversial.

It provides for additional child protection workers, more police and expanded drug and alcohol rehabilitation services.

But critics have slammed the government for its lack of consultation with indigenous Australians. They label the intervention as a “paternalistic” imposition from the capital Canberra and a “blanket punishment” that targets everyone in the Aboriginal communities, regardless of whether they were involved in child abuse.

They argue that provisions such as the quarantining of 50 percent of a recipient’s welfare benefits for essential items, the compulsory acquisition of Aboriginal land through five-year leases and the banning of alcohol and pornography in prescribed areas are too controlling and racially discriminatory.

Prof James Anaya, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on indigenous rights who visited the Northern Territory in August on a fact-finding mission, released a damning report on the emergency response in February. While the government is obliged to “ensure the security of Aboriginal women and children as a matter of urgency”, Anaya says that the NTER measures do not conform to the nation’s human rights obligations.

“In several key aspects, (it) limits the capacity of indigenous individuals and communities to control or participate in decisions affecting their own lives, property and cultural development, and it does so in a way that in effect discriminates on the basis of race, thereby raising serious human rights concerns,” reports Anaya.

To implement the measures, parliament also suspended part of the Northern Territory’s Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) in 2007. After the Rudd government pledged to reinstate the RDA, legislation to do so was introduced in parliament in November last year and is now before the Senate.

The parliament has passed one of two bills that amend sections of the NTER legislation to conform to the anti-discrimination law, which is part of the government’s efforts to “make it (NTER) effective for the long-term,” says Indigenous Affairs minister Jenny Macklin.

Still, there are worries that the anti-discrimination law could be superseded by the NTER legislation.

The Australian Human Rights Commission, the Law Council of Australia and the Northern and Central Land Councils want the inclusion of a ‘notwithstanding’ clause that would ensure that the anti-discrimination law prevails even if there are contrary provisions in the NTER legislation.

Meantime, Downs of the Alyawarra says there were more than 250 people living at the new community site at its peak, but that a lack of water resulted in younger members returning to Ampilatwatja until a bore is constructed.

“We’re (now) outside the measures of the NTER,” says the spokesman of the new site.

Downs told IPS by telephone that moving out of their settlement in Ampilatwatja came after the Alyawarra’s attempts at creating a partnership with the government on its future were rejected. “We were continually pushed aside and just used as tokens where we had no say, no control of the direction that the measures were taken,” he says.

The government, for its part, insists that the NTER is working. From its hundreds of consultations in mid-2009, the government says that partly as a result of NTER measures, children, women and the elderly were safer and better fed, with more money being spent on food, clothing and school-related expenses.

But a Mar. 12 report by the Australian Indigenous Doctors’ Association (AIDA) cautions against proclaiming initial improvements in physical health as evidence of its success and warns of “profound” long-term damage due to the intervention.

The NTER measures “will leave a negative legacy on the psychological and social well-being, on the spirituality and cultural integrity of the prescribed communities,” AIDA predicts.

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