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TWN Info Service on UN Sustainable Development (Apr17/03)
10 April 2017
Third World Network

Australia's Aboriginal people plagued by "tsunami" of imprisonment
Published in SUNS #8438 dated 6 April 2017


Geneva, 5 Apr (Kanaga Raja) - The incredibly high rate of incarceration of Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, including women and children, is a major human rights concern, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples has said.

"The figures are simply astounding. While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up only 3% of the total population, they constitute 27% of the prison population, and much more in some prisons. The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continues to rise and is expected to reach 50% of the prison population by 2020," said Ms Victoria Tauli-Corpuz at the end of her official visit to the country from 20 March to 3 April.

In her end-of-mission statement released on Tuesday, the rights expert said that high rates of incarceration have plagued many Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islander communities; "it was even described to me as a tsunami affecting indigenous peoples with devastating consequences for concerned individuals and communities."

"I want to emphasise that during my visit I have been particularly impressed and inspired by the strength of spirit and commitment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders to develop innovative measures to support their own communities," said the rights expert.

The existence of indigenous-led peak bodies in a wide range of areas provides valuable expertise. The Government could achieve significant progress in realising the rights of indigenous peoples if it consulted and worked much more closely with these organisations.

"I have observed effective community-led initiatives in a range of areas including public health, housing, education, child protection, conservation and administration of justice, which all have the potential of making immediate significant positive changes in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders."

Ms Tauli-Corpuz noted that while Australia has adopted numerous policies aiming to address Aboriginal and Torres Strait socio-economic disadvantage, the failure to respect the right to self-determination and the right to full and effective participation in these is alarming.

"The compounded effect of these policies has contributed to the failure to deliver on the targets in the areas of health, education and employment in the Closing the Gap strategy and has contributed to aggravating the escalating incarceration and child removal rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders."

The Indigenous Advancement Strategy initiated by the Government in 2014 entailed a radical cut of 534 million dollars to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander programmes and required competitive tender bids for organisations providing services to indigenous communities.

The Strategy centralised programmes to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, and its implementation has been "bureaucratic, rigid and wasted considerable resources on administration."

The Government's Indigenous Advancement Strategy has effectively undermined the key role played by Aboriginal and Torres Strait organisations in providing services for their communities, said the rights expert.

Around 55% of the tenders were awarded to non-Indigenous organisations, which shifted implementation to mainstream organisations that are not run by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders nor based in their communities.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations were forced to close or drastically downsize and reduce the basic services they were providing to their community in areas of health, housing and legal services.

"Non-indigenous organisations that fly in, fly out of communities have executed projects in culturally inappropriate ways and undermined capacity building in local indigenous led organisations."

Ms Tauli-Corpuz noted that the Closing the Gap targets on health, education and unemployment were agreed upon by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) and enjoy bi-partisan support.

The most recent report released in February 2017 stated that only one of the seven targets, to halve the gap in Year 12 attainment rates, is on track. The Government will not meet targets to close or reduce the gap on the remaining six targets, including on life expectancy, infant mortality, education and employment.

"Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people continue to die 10 years younger than other Australians, with no major improvements being recorded."

She said social and cultural determinants explain almost one third of the health gap between indigenous and non- indigenous people. Behavioural risk factors are said to be responsible for only 11% of the gap. In 2015, nearly 45% of indigenous peoples reported having a disability or long-term health condition.

"As I have travelled across the country, I have found the prevalence of racism against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples deeply disturbing," Ms Tauli-Corpuz also said.

This manifests itself in different ways, ranging from public stereotyped portrayals of them as violent criminals, welfare profiteers and poor parents, to discrimination in the administration of justice.

There are also more subtle elements of racism resulting from the failure to recognise the legacy of two centuries of systemic marginalisation. The mainstream education system contains inadequate components on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and the impact of colonisation.

"The non-recognition of the socio-economic exclusion and the inter-generational trauma of indigenous peoples sadly continues to undermine reconciliation efforts."

Australia needs a more comprehensive human rights legislative framework which would also provide stronger protection for the rights of indigenous peoples.

In view of the ongoing difficulties in harmonising international human rights obligations in Federal and State/ Territory legislation, the rights expert urged consideration to be given to the inclusion of a comprehensive bill of human rights within the Federal Constitution and to the elaboration of a Human Rights Act which includes due recognition of the provisions in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

"One main focus of my mission has been on justice and detention issues. The incredibly high rate of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, including women and children, is a major human rights concern. The figures are simply astounding."

While Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders make up only 3% of the total population, they constitute 27% of the prison population, and much more in some prisons. The proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders continues to rise and is expected to reach 50% of the prison population by 2020.

The reasons for the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in Australian prisons are manifold. Imprisonment is the end result of years of dispossession, discrimination and trauma faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders populations over the generations.

While the historical and socio-economic determinants cannot be ignored, current laws and policies have also contributed to the increase in the incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

The rights expert pointed out that even though they are not specifically targeted at these populations, they have had a disproportionate impact on them.

For instance, paperless arrest laws in the Northern Territory, which allow the police to detain a person for several hours if they have committed or are suspected to have committed a minor offence, have led to a dramatic increase in the number of Aboriginals in police custody.

Bail laws and policies have become more restrictive in most States and Territories of Australia and have led to a significant increase in the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders held on remand.

"I am also concerned that funding for legal services for Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders has been reduced over the last few years and may face further cuts. The reduced funding has had and will continue to have a major impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have higher rates of unmet legal needs."

Even more disconcerting is the alarming rate of incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander youth.

"I visited Cleveland Youth Detention Centre in Townsville, Queensland, where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children constitute 95% of the children detained there."

Across Australia, there are far too many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in detention. These children have committed offences.

"Nevertheless, these are mostly relatively minor and I was informed by several sources, including judges, that in the majority of instances the initial offences were non-violent."

It is completely inappropriate to detain these children in punitive, rather than rehabilitative, conditions, said the rights expert.

"They are essentially being punished for being poor and in most cases, prison will only aggravate the cycle of violence, poverty and crime. I found meeting young children, some only twelve years old, in detention the most disturbing element of my visit."

As already recommended by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, she urged Australia to increase the age of criminal responsibility. Children should be detained only as a last resort, which is not the case today for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women endure unacceptable levels of disadvantage that has been informed by a historical context of intersecting, systemic forms of discrimination, Ms Tauli-Corpuz also said.

"I was informed that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women are reportedly 10 times more likely to die of violent assault; and 34 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of violence-related assault compared to non-indigenous women."

These statistics are not reflective of the actual numbers due to high under-reporting rates, estimated at 90%, she noted.

The Special Rapporteur is expected to present a more comprehensive report of her official visit to Australia to the UN Human Rights Council this September.

 


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