Compensation / Reparation
'I've been a victim and I've suffered and I'll suffer until the day I die for what I've never had and what I can never have. I just have to get on with my life but compensation would help. It doesn't take the pain away. It doesn't take the suffering away. It doesn't take the memories away. It doesn't bring my mother back. But it has to be recognised.'
Victim of the Stolen Generation
From a human rights framework, victims have the right to reparation if their human rights have been violated by a state. Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that:
"Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the Constitution or by law."
As part of the 'Bringing Them Home' report recommendations were made in regards to how the Australian government should address the past wrong -doings inflicted on the Aboriginal people. The report concluded that the government has a responsibility to respond with reparation to those affected. 'Reparation' involves replenishment of a previously inflicted loss by the criminal to the victim and is the appropriate response to gross violations of human rights. According to international legal principles, reparation has five parts which include:
- Acknowledgment of the truth and an apology;
- Guarantees that these human rights won't be breached again;
- Returning what has been lost as much as possible (known as restitution);
The Issue of Compensation
While some of the recommendations of the report have been met, like the apology and promise to never let such atrocities happen again, some remain controversial and unfulfilled. The most notable of these is the question of compensation for members of the 'Stolen Generations'. While many believe it is the responsibility of the Australian government to compensate victims, the government itself believes it should not have to take responsibility for the wrong doings of past generations. However, much of the harm inflicted upon Aboriginal people is covered under Australian law. Therefore, it is argued that like any crime, the victims of the 'Stolen Generations' should be compensated.
Australian of the Year and Indigenous Australian leader Mick Dodson argues that: 'while the suggestion of compensation is controversial for some people, most of the categories of harm for which people would be claiming compensation already exist under Australian law - such as physical, sexual and emotional abuse, economic loss and pain and suffering. Money cannot bring back the years of lost childhood, but justice demands that stolen children should be treated equally by the law.'
Compensation in Canada
Following the national apology, the Australian government still takes the view that compensation to individual victims of the stolen generation is not necessary. This is in direct contrast to a decision made by the Canadian government in recent years to provide members of the Aboriginal community in Canada with a multi-billion compensation package for victims who experienced similar atrocities to those inflicted on Aboriginals in Australia. However, the Australian Government insists that instead of a national compensation fund, money should be used to address the serious levels of disadvantage still experienced by the Aboriginal community in Australia. While the need for further assistance to the Aboriginal community is clear, it does not take away the fact that the Stolen Generations are victims of acts viewed as serious crimes in Australian law and these acts have had long-term negative impacts.
Bruce Trevorrow is one member of the Stolen Generation who successfully won compensation from the government of South Australia. He was 13 months old when his family admitted him to hospital for treatment for stomach pains. When he was admitted it was recorded that he had no parents and was subsequently fostered by a white couple, without the knowledge of his parents. In 2007, Trevorrow won a court judgment that his alcoholism, depression and inability to hold down a job were attributable to his having been "stolen" as a child. He was awarded $525,000 Australian dollars by the courts after a ten-year battle. Unfortunately, he did not get a chance to enjoy his success, as he died less than a year after the ruling. The battle for compensation and recognition in the courts can be a long and stressful one and eventually took its toll on the hard-battling Trevorrow. For this reason many have called for a national compensation fund to be set up to compensate victims of the Stolen Generation in a dignified and fair manner. It would also lessen the need for lawyers to get involved and reduce the psychological stress of victims.
Compensation in Tasmania
'There's been quite a bit of anger and sadness at times and sadly I took to the drink to try and forget - I became a loner. If it hadn't been for my wife, I'd still be in the gutter... I'm handling things better now because I know eventually,... when we've got our compensation, that we can enjoy things as a family again.'
Eddie Thomas, Stolen Generation victim
The only state government in Australia to offer compensation to members of the Stolen Generation to date is the Tasmanian government. It made a commitment in 2006 to compensate Aboriginal Tasmanians who were removed from their families. A $5 million fund was created to provide payments to eligible members of the Stolen Generations and their children. Eddie Thomas, who was a baby when he was removed from his family, is one of the victims included in the scheme. To him compensation is an acknowledgement that his removal was wrong. It is also a helping hand in overcoming the psychological impact his removal has had on his life.
Should Compensation be granted to the 'Stolen Generation'?
'What's done is done. You can't turn back the clock...Countering the wisdom of the proverbs is the conviction that even the past can be changed. When the misdeeds of the past are brought to light, when the perpetrators and their heirs confess and ask forgiveness, when we do penance and mend our ways and pay the price- then the crime committed has a new setting and a new significance'
In his book 'Terra Nullius' Swedish author Sven Lindqvist discusses the history of Aboriginal Australians since colonisation. He explores the question of whether they should be compensated for the past atrocities carried out against them. The majority of the current population in Australia are not the ones who directly carried out the atrocities against the Aboriginal people. The current government is not the government who enacted the policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children so why should they be held responsible by paying out compensation? This is a hotly debated question in Australia and internationally.
Whether the people who carried out the policy are alive or not is not important. What is important is that there are generations of Aboriginal people who were removed from their families for no other reason other than that they had Aboriginal blood. The lasting effects have been enormous and still today statistics show that the Stolen Generations have lower education standards, higher problems with mental health and a higher than average record of drug use. What the Stolen Generations experienced were crimes according to Australian law and these crimes were enacted and carried out by the Australian State. Therefore, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the perpetrator of the crime –the Australian State- should compensate its victims- the Stolen Generations.
- To find out more about reparation and recommendations of the Australian Human Rights Commission go to: http://www.humanrights.gov.au/social_justice/bth_report/report/ch14.html
- Justice for Aboriginal People: see http://seaofhands.antar.org.au/ for an interactive way to design your own 'hand' which will be added to the 'Sea Of Hands' campaign in support of justice for Aboriginal people in Australia
- http://www.eniar.org/index.html gives all the up-to-date news on Aboriginal Australia issues. Watch out for the 'First Australians' which is a new documentary on the history of Australia