While advances have been made in the past couple of years, there is still along way to go before the unique needs of Indigenous people are recognised and true reconciliation is achieved in Australia. The fact remains that on nearly all social indicators, Aboriginals in Australia fall drastically below the norm. So much so that, even thought they live in one of the world's richest nations the statistics for Aboriginals are more closely aligned with 'Third World' nations. These facts are not just coincidences, but are as a result of past and present problems with the commitment to and recognition of Aboriginal culture and needs.

In this part of the Module we take a look at the ongoing debates in Australian society in which the perceived rights of the Aboriginal community clash with the traditional held views of the 'white' population. The debate includes the issues surrounding the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, The Stolen Generations, The National Apology, Compensation and Native Title.

Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People

'Human rights do not dispossess people. Human rights do not marginalize people. Human rights do not cause their poverty and they don't cause the gaps in the life expectancy and other life outcomes. It is the denial of rights that is the largest contributor to these things. The value of human rights is not in their existence; it is in their implementation. The standards have been set. It is up to us to meet them.'

Prof Mick Dodson, Australian of the Year 2009 -


Examples of indigenous groups around the world include Aboriginals in Australia and Canada, the Maori people in New Zealand and Native American Indians in the USA. Estimates show that there are more than 370 million Indigenous people in 70 countries around the world. Indigenous peoples are unique in respect of their customs, cultures, ways of relating to other people and to the environment. They are the people with the earliest known historical connection to their country. However, historically these cultures have not been protected and their rights have been violated. They are usually recognised as one of the most disadvantaged groups in their own countries. As a result Indigenous peoples around the world have sought recognition of their identities, their ways of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources.

The international community now recognises this fact and since the 1980s the U.N has been working on improving the situation for Indigenous communities from a rights-based perspective. The culmination of this work happened in September 2007, when the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN General Assembly. It was adopted by a majority that included 143 states in favour, 4 votes against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and 11 abstentions (Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa and Ukraine).

The Declaration

A non-binding text in law, the Declaration sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues. The Declaration itself has 46 Articles which outline the specific rights and needs of Indigenous people. It also includes specific ways in which governments must play a role in protecting the rights of Indigenous people within their own state. Some of the rights set down in the Declaration include:

  • The right to full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms individually and collectively
  • The right to self-determination (i.e. govern themselves). Indigenous people have the right to look after their own economic, social and cultural interests as well as having the right to self-government in matters relating to local affairs
  • The right to live in freedom and security, protected from any act of genocide or violence, which specifically includes forcibly removing children from one group to another group
  • The right not to be forced into losing their culture. Many indigenous cultures have faced destruction by non-indigenous populations throughout history: the Declaration forbids this. The Declaration also states that governments should not only prevent such acts in the future, but also provide fair compensation for any such acts which happened in the past
  • The right to lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or occupied. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands. Indigenous people shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories

What is Significant about the Declaration?

Many of the rights in the Declaration require new approaches to global issues, such as development, self-determination and multicultural democracy. Countries will need to take a participatory approach in their interactions with indigenous peoples. This requires meaningful consultations and partnerships. The Declaration emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions. It also prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them. It promotes their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development. It is hoped that the recognition and respect of indigenous cultures will close the social and economic gap between them and the wider population.

However, it is also important to note that while indigenous customs are protected by the Declaration, this is not to the detriment of fundamental human rights set out in other human rights declarations. For example, Article 34 of the Declaration states that 'Indigenous peoples have the right to promote, develop and maintain their... distinctive customs, spirituality, traditions, procedures, practices and, in the cases where they exist, juridical systems or customs' but must do so 'in accordance with international human rights standards'. In other words, while the Declaration protects Indigenous people's culture and way of life, this protection is not unlimited - respect for universal human rights still takes precedence.

Australia and the Declaration

When it comes to indigenous rights Australia's history of violations is stark. From the time of the very first settlers up until the 1970s Aboriginal Australians have been thrown off their homelands and children have been forcibly removed from their families. These children are now referred to as the 'Stolen Generations' in which it is estimated that between 1 in 3 and 1 in 10 Aboriginal children were taken away. Low education and employment rates still persist in the community and there is a 17-year life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Australia. In 2007 Australia was one of the original countries to vote against the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This decision was a massive blow against the fight for equality for Aboriginal Australians. The then-Howard government claimed that the Declaration would promote traditional, customary law above national law. The main arguments against signing the declaration were around self-determination, customary-law and land rights.


'In making this formal statement of support, the federal government is committing to a framework which fully respects Indigenous peoples' rights and creates the opportunity for all Australians to be truly equal.'

Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma

Australia can't go back to the United Nations to sign the Declaration due to their initial vote against it in 2007. However, in April 2009, the Australian Government made a statement in support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This move has been welcomed and acknowledged as a significant step forward from a human rights perspective in the pursuit of justice and equality for Aboriginal Australians. This new commitment to equality is hoped to help in the campaign around issues which persist in Australia in relation to Native Title and Compensation for the 'Stolen Generations'.

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