UN expert gives voice to women of the NT intervention


Originally published in Tracker Magazine. 

NORTHERN TERRITORY, May 4, 2011: The United Nations Indigenous expert who delivered a scathing report into the NT intervention a year ago says he sought to give voice to women subject to the special measures which were not being heard.

UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples, Professor James Anaya.


The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, Professor James Anaya, says he was “struck” by the vocal opposition to the intervention from the people it was charged with protecting.

Professor Anaya outlined the background to his report to Tracker at the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council’s statewide conference in April during a 10-day visit to Australia, almost a year after it was tabled at the fifteenth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

“The image that I first had about the situation was that there was really a dire situation where the health and wellbeing and safety of women and children were immediately threatened and required urgent measures,” he said.

“But what I was struck by when I came to Australia was how it was the women’s organisations and individual women leaders of communities that were among the most vocal critics… I was really struck by that,” he added.

“… More and more I came away with an understanding of the perspective of those who were frustrated by the measures and who are opposing them.”

Professor Anaya said he considered that their views “are often disregarded.”

“There is this perception (internationally) that the Australian Government is acting in favour of issues of women and children,” he said.

“Somehow outside of Australia, the voice of Indigenous women and leaders who take the view that this is not an appropriate response hasn’t been heard that well. What I’ve tried to do in my work is allow that voice to be heard, to put through the voice and frustrations of Aboriginal people.”

Professor Anaya’s comments stand in stark contrast to recent claims by pro-interventionist Bess Price.

She recently claimed that during his visit to the Northern Territory in late 2009 to gain first-hand knowledge of the situation the UN Rapporteur  was “just led around to speak to people who were against the intervention. He did not have a chance to talk to the other people who were for the intervention.”

Ms Price made the claims following Professor Anaya’s interview with Tracker.

However, his 26-page report in March last year on the Northern Territory Emergency Response (NTER) makes it clear he talked to both those for and against the intervention.

The report states that during his visit to Australia in August 2009 the Special Rapporteur heard complaints about the NTER “through multiple oral statements by numerous Indigenous individuals and leaders, not just in the Northern Territory but in all places visited in Australia.

“He also received written petitions against the NTER signed by hundreds of Indigenous individuals,” the report states.

“Several other Indigenous individuals with whom the Special Rapporteur met did speak in favour of the NTER in general and the need for government action to address the problems it targets.”

The Special Rapporteur noted in his report the Australian Government was “correct to endeavour to ensure the security of Aboriginal women and children as a matter of urgency and priority, and to improve the well-being of Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory”.

“Affirmative measures by the government to address the extreme disadvantage faced by Indigenous peoples and issues of safety for children and women are not only justified, but they are, in fact, required under Australia’s human rights obligations, including under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,” the report stated.

“The NTER program, however, in several key aspects, 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.

“It is the opinion of the Special Rapporteur that, as currently configured and carried out, provisions of the NTER are incompatible with Australia’s human rights obligations.”

Professor Anaya told Tracker he was looking forward to meeting with Australian Government officials during his latest trip to discuss changes by the Gillard Government to the special measures under the NTER.

He had read summaries of the changes and was interested in hearing more from government.

“I’ve heard from Aboriginal leaders that changes are not sufficient or adequate,” Professor Anaya said.

“These are questions I have to study more carefully, looking at what the reforms have done and more particularly, which of the on the ground impacts of the intervention have continued in their current form,” he added.

“There are some real issues that the NTER is addressing, or purported to address, and these underlying issues are concerns of mine.

“My interest is to see to what extent the intervention, in its current configuration, is being effective and to what extent the special measures that are still in place are not fully in line with Aboriginal peoples desires or aspirations, and what is necessary to bring about the kind of assistance that the NTER is intended to provide.”

Professor Anaya said he was shocked during his previous visit by the complexity of the original legislation.

“I am hard pressed to think of any place in the world where we have a package of measures like the NTER, particularly in its original configuration, which involved limitations on basic autonomy of a group, any group, including Indigenous peoples,” Prof Anaya said.

“It’s just not seen, the programs that are designed to assist particular groups are done in ways that don’t limit the individual autonomy in the way the original NTER did, or override the decision making processes by communities or organisations in the way the NTER did and continues to do so in other measures.”

He said there was still scant evidence to support many of the measures during his last visit.

“The government’s own figures on alcohol use found that the bans were not curbing the problem, Professor Anaya said.

“Evidence about compulsory income management was anecdotal. Such anecdotes aren’t really evidence of improvement of an overall problem, you need more than isolated anecdotes.

“I’ve tried to find the evidence that this program has been working, but I just haven’t seen it. I didn’t see it at the time I completed my report, but I’m still open to learning.”

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