Australia Endorses UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights

by Brad Jolly, Partner
Apr 3, 2010

Fulfilling election promises, under its new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, Australia has officially changed its position on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and signed on. In 2007 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the declaration, Australia was one of only four countries - along with the United States, Canada, and New Zealand - that voted against the Declaration.

The Rudd government's action was a complete reversal of the former Howard government's position that the Declaration was "divisive" and could override existing Australian laws. In particular, the Howard government complained about the Declaration's provisions regarding indigenous self-government, which the Howard government claimed would result in a different set of laws for Aborigines. Ironically, the Howard government's complaint in this respect was that Aborigines would be permitted to live under laws they could establish for themselves rather than laws imposed on them from the outside. Since the Howard government was replaced by the ALP, it has been discovered that the former PM is responsible for getting Canada to vote against the Declaration, contrary to Canada's original position on the Declaration and Canada's normally strong support of human rights.

During the last elections which led to the Australian Labor Party's ("ALP") victory, the ALP had promised to endorse the Declaration if elected. The promise was considered controversial, but the ALP followed through. A year ago, in February 2008, Kevin Rudd read a formal apology to the Aborigines for the Lost Generation, using the term "sorry" on several occasions, which all former Australian parliaments and PMs have refused to do - the Howard government would only use the term "regret." Notably, no president in the United States has even come close to addressing the totality of crimes inflicted against Indians by the United States.

Australia's move forward in the area of indigenous rights is significant, but it remains to be seen if the Rudd government will take real action toward improving the huge gap in welfare between the Aborigines and other Australians.

© 2010 Brad S. Jolly & Associates, LLC