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Righting Past Wrongs

posted Mar 25, 2011, 12:45 AM by Aldrin Khaw   [ updated Apr 1, 2011, 8:58 PM ]
25 March 2011
The 15 April 2011 will mark 20 years since the release of the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991. Twenty years later the vast majority of the recommendations of the Royal Commission have not been implemented.


Though only representing less than 3% of our total population, imprisonment continues to rise. Between 2000 and 2010 their rate of imprisonment increased from 1,248 to 1,892 prisoners per 100 000 adults, as compared to a change from 130 to 134 non-Indigenous prisoners per 100 000 adults. This raises concern at the continuation of disproportionately high rates of deaths in custody of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with 269 deaths in custody since the report in 1991. That is, nearly 1 in 5 of all deaths in custody.
How can we move forward on this impasse? By righting past wrongs as noted in the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, National Report (1991) ('the Royal Commission');


“1.4.14 The relations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people were historically influenced by racism, often of the overt, outspoken and sanctimonious kind; but more often, particularly in later times, of the quiet assumption that scarcely recognises itself. What Aboriginal people have largely experienced is policies nakedly racially-based and in their everyday lives the constant irritation of racist attitudes. Aboriginal people were never treated as equals and certainly relations between the two groups were conducted on the basis of inequality and control.”[1]


Government needs to revisit and follow through on the recommendations of the Royal Commission. This should be followed up by a national and state charter of rights, similar to the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic), along with Indigenous Constitutional recognition. These steps will ensure that basic human rights are valued and protected within government and the community.


Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody


The Royal Commission was established in 1987 in response to concern over the number of deaths of Aboriginal people in custody and examined the circumstances surrounding the deaths of 99 Indigenous people that occurred between 1 January 1980 and 31 May 1989. Although the Commissioners were unable to ‘point to a common thread of abuse, neglect or racism’ among the deaths, they did find that Aboriginality played a significant role in their presence in custody as well as their subsequent deaths. Because of the issue surrounding Aboriginality, a charter of rights that mirrors the Victorian Charter and its reference to the Indigenous population could raise awareness and highlight the uniqueness of their plight in the Australian landscape.


The fundamental causes for the over-representation of Aboriginal people in custody are not just to be found in the criminal justice system, but in those factors which bring Aboriginal people into conflict with the criminal justice system in the first place. Namely the disadvantaged and unequal position in which Aboriginal people find themselves in the society - socially, economically and culturally. Therefore, for these reasons and these reasons alone, state and national charters could also be premised upon the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966, when dealing with the plight of Indigenous Australians. Any special measures targeting the Indigenous population in state and national charters and Constitutional recognition would not be discriminatory because they are intended to ensure the ‘adequate advancement’ of a particular disadvantaged group, as permitted and required by the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, under articles 1(4) and 2(2).


Therefore a state and national charter and Constitutional recognition would offer more protection to the Indigenous population, and fill the gaps in existing legislation such as the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth), Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Act 1986 (Cth), the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) and the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 (WA). Not only will it afford legal protection, it will give voice and common language to explain the things that make up the essential human identity of people of different cultures and backgrounds.


If a national/state charter and Constitutional recognition were enacted it would become a fundamental part of our legal framework, specifying that human rights must be regarded as essential in a democratic society. Human rights would become a rallying point to which Australians can identify, because these rights belong to every human being regardless of age, race, sex or culture. Consequently, these changes would provide guidelines for governments on how to treat and care for their citizens.


Media Contact:  GLSC Chief Executive Officer – (08) 90 911661