There are a couple of issues that I consider to be crucial for Australia to address, and to address as soon as possible. One of those issues is our abhorrent treatment of asylum seekers. Another—one which is perhaps the single most important issue facing us as a nation—is the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
I write/speak/tweet/rant/shout quite a bit about the first of these issues. As far as I can see, the solution/s to the current situation is not overly complex. It begins by approaching the situation as a humanitarian crisis, rather than a small-minded, nationalistic issue of ‘border
protection’, and builds from there (e.g. directing funding to regional processing centres, community processing of asylum requests, etc.).
The second issue, however, is rather complex indeed—all the more so due to over 200 years of policy failure. While the issues are complex, and while I do not want to try to talk as if I (as someone who has benefitted from a lifetime of white privilege) have the answers, I think there is one essential ingredient that needs a whole lot more focus from those who are making decisions: Indigenous self-determination.
Though this idea has often been misunderstood and (perhaps deliberately) misrepresented, true self-determination for Australia’s Indigenous peoples must surely lie at the very heart of our future together.
Much has been written and said on this topic, but I have found Chapter 2 of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s* 2002 ‘Social Justice Report’ (Self-determination – the freedom to
‘live well’) to be quite helpful. It’s worthwhile reading the whole thing through a number of times (in order to grasp the numerous excellent points that are made), but I thought it might be helpful to post one of the summaries here:
- Self-determination is an ongoing process of choice for the achievement of human security and fulfilment of human needs.
- Respect for distinct cultural values and diversity is fundamental to the notion of self-determination.
- The protection of self-determination unquestionably involves some kind of collective political identity for indigenous nations and peoples, i.e. it requires official recognition of their representatives and institutions.
- Respect for Indigenous peoples’ relationship to land and resources is an integral component of self-determination, from an economic, social, political and cultural dimension. A lack of control of traditional lands and resources is often a significant institutional barrier to the realisation of Indigenous self-determination.
- Self-determination contains a subjective element – it cannot be judged solely from objective criteria. The true test of self-determination is whether Indigenous peoples themselves actually feel that they have choices about their way of life.
- Essential to the exercise of self-determination is choice, participation and control. The essential requirement for self-determination is that the outcome corresponds to the free and voluntary choice of the people concerned.
- Self-determination does not have a prescribed or pre-determined outcome.
- Self-determination is a process that is ongoing. It is not a one-off event or something that is defined as at a particular moment in history.
- A notion of popular participation is inherent to self-determination.
- In a democracy, Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination is not necessarily safeguarded or respected by a reliance on majority rule. Self-determination raises the issue of representativeness and participation within the democratic principle.
- The existence in democratic societies of structural and procedural barriers which inhibit the full participation of Indigenous peoples must be recognised. The nature of participation and representativeness required by self-determination necessitates going beyond such sameness of treatment and to strive for institutional innovation.
- Ultimately, the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the State is linked to respect for self-determination. Numerous UN declarations, such as the Friendly Relations Declaration, limit the exercise of self-determination so that it does not threaten territorial integrity or political unity of States so long as those states conduct themselves in compliance with the principles of equal rights and self-determination of peoples and are representative.
- Continued government representivity and accountability is therefore a condition for enduring enjoyment of the right of self-determination, and for continued application of the territorial integrity and national unity principles.
- Article 45 of the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples** similarly qualifies the recognition of Indigenous self-determination in Article 3 of the Draft Declaration by making it subject to the provisions of the Friendly Relations Declaration (and other UN provisions). Hence, the recognition of Indigenous self-determination through the Draft Declaration is qualified in a way that guarantees the territorial integrity of States.
- Secession is an extreme expression of self-determination and one that will only occur in the rarest of cases when all other processes have failed. Separation or secession from the State of which a people forms a part should be regarded as a right of last resort.
- The fear of secession by States immediately conflates Indigenous self-determination with the concept of state-hood. The equation of self-determination with secession is made without reference to the existing state of international law and without an eye to history.
- In Australia, the absence of any conflict or political movement for secession by Indigenous peoples is an obvious indicator of the lack of reality, indeed the absurdity, of the claim that recognition of self-determination could lead to secession.
- Self-determination is not self-executing, unilateral or absolute in its application and is a process of engagement and negotiation. When balanced against principles such as the protection of territorial integrity, the international community is highly unlikely to recognise secessionist movements in States that are conducting themselves in good faith.
- Indigenous peoples have indicated that generally they do not aspire to secession. Examples from Australia indicate that there are no aspirations for secession by Indigenous Australians.
- The fear by governments of secession is not soundly based in existing law or political reality. What is required for progress in recognition of Indigenous self-determination is for governments to stop acting in bad faith by automatically equating self-determination with secession.
- There is no justification for imposing an arbitrary restriction to internal self-determination on Indigenous peoples. The participation of Indigenous peoples in UN processes and in negotiations on the Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples demonstrates that there are numerous external dimensions to their right to self-determination, other than secession.
- Attempts to qualify the recognition of Indigenous self-determination place the universality of human rights at risk.
* Formerly the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).