Australia silent on UN racism committee condemnation

Monday, March 28, 2005

The Australian government has been keeping quiet about a UN committee's repeated criticism of its record on race issues. A report issued over two weeks ago by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has not received comment from the government in the media, and domestic media coverage has been scant, as reported by the Sydney Morning Herald, and confirmed by a search of news search engine

According to Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) National Director David Cooper before the case was heard by the UN committee, "We fully expect the government is going to deflect it by criticising the UN process."

In fact, this criticism was given in the session, and nothing has been heard from the Australian Federal Government since, on the committee hearing and report.

After reciting a list of Australian anti-racism initiatives, ambassador to the UN Mike Smith, described the 18 committee members' work in the previous session five years ago as "cursory" and "unreasonable". He said they had largely ignored progress being made in Australia, yet displayed "an unquestioning acceptance" of critics of the Government.

Regis de Gouttes of France called Mr Smith "exceptionally rude".

Jose Lindgren Alves of Brazil told him, "As a veteran diplomat, this statement, with its language describing programs and attacks on NGOs, reminds me of the sort of statement from communist bloc countries and Latin American dictatorships that Australia used to condemn."

The committee was positive about a number of improvements in race-related issues in Australia over the five years since its last report. These were,

  • the criminalising of acts and incitement of racial hatred in most Australian States and Territories
  • progress in the economic, social and cultural rights by indigenous


  • commitment of state and federal governments to work together on the issues
  • programmes and practices among the police and the judiciary, aimed at reducing the number of indigenous juveniles entering the criminal justice system
  • the abolition of mandatory sentencing in the Northern Territory
  • the adoption of a Charter of Public Service in a Culturally Diverse Society to ensure that government services are provided in a way that is sensitive to the language and cultural needs of all Australians
  • and the numerous human rights education programmes developed by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).

However the report contained a large number of serious criticisms, and a reminder that the Convention prohibits direct as well as indirect discrimination. Australia was asked to report back on progress on a number of items within one year.

The criticisms were,

  • that there was nothing to stop racially discriminative Commonwealth laws
  • proposed reforms to HREOC that may limit its independence and hinder its effectiveness at monitoring Australia's compliance with the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination
  • the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), an elected body of indigenous representatives, the main policy-making body in Aboriginal affairs
  • a lack of legislation criminalising serious acts or incitement of racial hatred, in the Commonwealth, the State of Tasmania and the Northern Territory
  • that reported prejudice against Arabs and Muslims had increased
  • that counter-terrorism legislation may have an indirect discriminatory effect against Arab and Muslim Australians
  • reportedly biased treatment of asylum-seekers by the media
  • difficulty in gaining successful litigation under the Racial Discrimination Act in the absence of direct evidence
  • that no cases of racial discrimination, as distinct from racial hatred, have been successfully litigated in the Federal courts since 2001
  • reversal since 1998 of progress made under 1993's Native Title Act and Mabo case, with new legal certainty for government and third parties provided at the expense of indigenous title
  • diverging perceptions between governmental authorities and indigenous peoples and others on the compatibility of the 1998 amendments to the Native Title Act with the Convention
  • that proof of continuous observance and acknowledgement of the laws and customs of indigenous peoples since the British acquisition of sovereignty over Australia is required to establish native title
  • very poor conditions of employment, housing, health, education and income for indigenous Australians, compared with non-indigenous
  • mandatory sentencing in Western Australia, which disproportionately impacts indigenous Australians
  • the "striking over-representation" of indigenous people in prison, and dying in custody
  • that indigenous women are the fastest growing prison population
  • allegations, accompanied by State denials, of discrimination in the grant of visas against Asian and Muslim people
  • Australia's mandatory detention of migrants determined to be illegal, including asylum-seekers, particularly when it affects women, children, unaccompanied minors, and the stateless
  • that many have been in detention for over three years
  • lack of access by many migrants and protected refugees to social security
  • precariousness of circumstances, and denial of right of family reunion, for many protected refugees
  • that the Federal Government has rejected most of the recommendations adopted by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation given in 2000