Third world conditions shock Amnesty head

BY AMY MCQUIREOCTOBER 11, 2011

Originally published by Tracker Magazine.

Naronda William Loy, 21 with her daughter Karlishia Raggatt,1, speak with Amnesty Internationals Salil Shetty, at Mosquito Bore, Utopia. Naronda lives with no running water, toilet, showers and electricity, 280 km out of Alice Springs. (IMAGE: CHLOE GERAGHTY)

NATIONAL: It’s been two years since the last head of Amnesty International visited our shores, shocked at third world conditions in a first world country.

Irene Khan toured Central Australian communities in 2009, and delivered a stinging indictment of the then Rudd government’s approach to Indigenous affairs.

“The conditions in which people are living here are similar to the conditions you would see in poor countries in Africa or Asia,” Ms Khan said.

“But they don’t need to be like this here. That’s the tragedy. That’s the puzzle.”

Her successor – Salil Shetty –toured several Central Australian communities in the Utopia region over the weekend, delivering a similar rebuke.

“Actually going there and meeting the local communities and looking at the living conditions, it was quite shocking,” Mr Shetty told Tracker yesterday.

“I think that’s one of the paradoxes, that in a rich country the years are ticking by but the situation is not improving. “
Mr Shetty is currently in Australia on a 12-day tour.

He is due in Canberra this week to meet with Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin and Opposition MPs.

The trip has been centered around the controversial Northern Territory Growth Towns policy, which many have feared will lead to the closure of nearly 500 outstations in the Northern Territory.

The policy directs the majority of government funding into 21 larger communities, or “growth towns”, at the expense of the smaller communities making up the Homelands movement.

Last month Amnesty launched its research report – The land holds us: Aboriginal Peoples’ right to traditional homelands in the Northern Territory.

It called for funding under the Closing the Gap raft of initiatives to be equitably distributed to homelands communities, and pleaded with the government not to abandon these communities.

Mr Shetty says that the message he will be taking to the Gillard government is not new.

“I don’t think they need a new message. These problems are not new,” Mr Shetty said.

“The solutions are just being neglected, they are being ignored.

“In the coming months, there is a review of the budget and we need to make sure that the homelands communities are given adequate resourcing.

“We need to make sure they don’t push them out of the homelands.”

Mr Shetty says that governments must place decision-making powers back in Aboriginal hands and begin to understand their unique ties to land if it is serious about closing the gap.

“I think there is a fundamental problem. I think at one level the government doesn’t fully understand how central the relationships Aboriginal people have with land.

“It’s not just the physical aspect. It’s a cultural aspect, it’s their identity, it’s their spirit, it’s their ancestors.

“Effectively if they moved away, they would be alienated, and their health condition would also deteriorate.”

In 2008, a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that adult residents in the 16 homeland communities of the Utopia region had a 40-50 percent lower rate of morbidity than the rest of the general NT Aboriginal population.

The study attributed the improved health outcomes to a degree of self-determination, and a more traditional lifestyle.

It came despite the fact that Utopian communities, according to a study by the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research (CAEPR), are the most disadvantaged in the nation, with appalling standards of housing, income and employment.

Mr Shetty says that it’s obvious Aboriginal people are being left out of the solutions.

“The core problem is that all of the policies are imposed from outside communities. They are not part of the decision making process,” Mr Shetty says.

He says Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal peoples is a black mark on an otherwise good human rights record.

“There are several problems in terms of Australia’s international obligations,” he said.

“It’s a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which explicitly states Aboriginal communities should be given free, prior and informed consent.”

He said that Australia has also signed international conventions that include the right for everyone to have access to adequate housing and sanitation.

“But these are pathetic conditions in these communities,” Mr Shetty says.

“There are no toilets, power is constantly broken down. The bare essentials are not available.”

“… It’s clear that it’s a scar on the fair face of Australia, it sheds a light on the conscience of Australia, because otherwise Australia has been one of the champions of human rights.

“This country has resources, it’s not like they can’t find the solutions, that they don’t have the resources to do it.
“The view that it’s such an intractable problem that we can’t resolve it is not true.

“It simply has to be a process of actively empowering and putting Aboriginal communities in the driving seat to find solutions.”

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