Genocide in Australia

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s to organise support for Aborigine and Torres Strait Islander demands at the request of the FCAATSI.

According to the definition of genocide under international law and used by the UN yes. Australia is a signatory to a number of UN Charters, Conventions and Declarations which outlaw the very practices carried out here. The 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (ratified by Australia in 1949) made it clear that genocide includes any actions which have the effect of “destroying, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” It defines genocide as: “…killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting…conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group…”

Australias treatment of Aborigines qualifies as genocide on every single count.

So at the same time as Australian governments were grandstanding internationally, they were deliberately ignoring their own commitments, and they continued their genocidal practices for decades afterwards.

“There are certain restrictions which must remain imposed on Aborigines even though they are at variance with the complete ideals of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The UN Conventions also make it clear that acting out of “good intentions” is no excuse its the effects which count, not the purpose. Nor can a state use the excuse that “it was lawful under its own laws”. For example, the Holocaust was genocide, even though much of the persecution of the Jews in Germany was legal under the Nuremberg Laws of 1938.

“Official policy and legislation for Indigenous families and children was contrary to accepted legal principle imported into Australia as British common law and, from late 1946, constituted a crime against humanity. It offended accepted standards of the time and was the subject of dissent and resistance. The implementation of the legislation was marked by breaches of fundamental obligations on the part of officials and others to the detriment of vulnerable and dependent children whose parents were powerless to know their whereabouts and protect them from exploitation and abuse.”

UN Conventions also stipulate that, where genocide is established, reparation must follow. Australia would not be the first country to do this. The report documents a number of cases where it has been done, and more recently the Canadian government made an apology to its indigenous people for similar practices and allocated substantial funds towards a reparations program.

While nothing can adequately compensate for the damage, the prospects for healing are further reduced in the absence of acknowledgement and reparation.

Financial compensation is only a part of this. Equally important are an open and official acknowledgement of and apology for the past, the establishment of mechanisms to help people find out about themselves and to reunite with their families where that is possible and legislation to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again. These and the other recommendations of the inquiry should be implemented immediately, but the Howard government has rejected most of them.

The government response to the report, announced in December 1997, is nothing less than an insult to the stolen generations. The paltry sum of $63 million dollars will be spent over four years on such things as counselling, regional support networks, family support programs, link-up services, a culture and language maintenance program and an oral history project. Minister Herron once again reiterated the tired old Coalition party line justifying the governments refusal to offer an apology: “You might as well go and ask the British for an apology for coming to Australia with the convicts”, he said. “You cant judge past practices by todays standards.”

Herron also ruled out any financial compensation, saying “It was believed cash compensation to individuals would not achieve a great deal.” Meanwhile, stolen children who want to seek compensation for abuse in government and church institutions through the courts are being prevented from doing so by lack of money to fight the cases and what lawyers describe as an almost impossible hunt for documentation. Matthew Storey, senior solicitor for the NT Stolen Generation Litigation Unit, has been told that government records dating back to the crucial period of the 1950s have been destroyed.

Although most States have not undertaken to adopt the reports recommendations on adoption, child welfare and juvenile justice procedures, Herron said Commonwealth action to force their compliance was unnecessary. This is a repeat scenario of what happened with the recommendations of the Black Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, where the States failure to implement them has meant that the problem has not only continued, but got worse. Since 1990, according to the Australian Institute of Criminology, 92 Indigenous Australians have died in prison or police custody (including deaths in police operations such as sieges and pursuits). More than 17 per cent of all custodial deaths were Aborigines or Torres Strait Islanders, who make up 1.4 per cent of the adult population.

With all this plus the racist 10-point plan, it is little wonder that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission has passed a vote of no confidence in Herron, and refused to have further dealings with him. Even the conservative, Liberal-appointed head of ATSIC, Gatjil Djerrkura, who was a Country Liberal Party candidate for a Northern Territory Senate seat in 1980, has called for Herrons sacking. In a recent interview Djerrkura described Herron as “a person who believes he knows best for us. He has a paternalistic attitude.” And one of his staffers described the relationship between Herron and Howard as “the uninformed informing the uninterested.” Howard has repeatedly demonstrated his lack of interest in the issue, perhaps most notably when he actually left the parliamentary chamber just as Labor opposition members started to read out some of the experiences of the stolen children.

Howard wants to be “fair” to pastoralists, many of whose fortunes were built on both dispossession and cheap or unpaid Aboriginal labour. He has no problem with setting up special funds for things such as drought relief or gun buy-backs, or funding the redundancies of wharfies sacked by Patrick Stevedores. Clearly, he feels some loyalty and sense of responsibility to those constituencies. But he rejects any compensation for Aborigines.

With its attacks on native title, ATSIC, Abstudy and so on, the Howard government is carrying on the racist traditions of its predecessors and adding further insult to the grievous injuries already suffered.